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UB leads the nation in recycling food waste, one plate at a time
Story by Lauren Newkirk Maynard; photos by Douglas Levere, BA ’89
Remember tossing leftover chicken wings into the trash at Putnam’s, or chucking your foam takeout box along with your half–eaten Bert’s burrito as you rushed to class? According to Campus Dining and Shops (CDS), each UB student produces an average of four pounds of waste every day, and CDS serves approximately 11,000 meals daily. That’s a lot of wings and foam containers!
UB has been a national leader for decades among colleges and universities in energy conservation. But in the past three years, it also has made significant strides in collecting unused food from its campus cafeterias, dining halls and restaurants and turning it into compost, a natural mixture of decomposed organic matter.
CDS has done a commendable job at conserving food, says Tom Ludtka, manager of the UB Commissary and a lead member of UB’s composting efforts. But, he adds, before the university developed its current composting program, a good portion of unused kitchen scraps and post–consumer waste had to be trucked off campus to landfills.
That all began to change about seven years ago, when UB Facilities began collecting food waste in heavy-duty, recycled plastic buckets at the suggestion of Megan Lawler, BS ’07, a student assistant for UB Green, the university’s sustainability office. A university-wide recycling committee was taking shape, and UB Facilities, CDS and UB Green eventually partnered to develop a composting program. Using Ithaca College’s successful program as a guide, UB Green and University Facilities began hand-delivering the buckets to an outdoor compost pile, first located on the South Campus.
When Ludtka got involved, says Erin Moscati, BA ’00, an environmental educator for UB Green and one of the university’s recycling experts, he turned composting into an internal competition among kitchen managers. Together, staff from the founding departments and UB’s dining facilities embraced the challenge, and the program took off. “Everyone began requesting more bins,” Moscati recalls. (Today, the collection process has been streamlined, and CDS uses its own food–delivery trucks to retrieve between 400 and 650 buckets of raw food waste every week.)
By 2008, the compost pile had been moved to the North Campus, five campus kitchens were participating and the amount of raw food waste had grown too large to manage. “We hadn’t planned on getting into the composting business,” says CDS general manager Jeff Mott, so the project had to stop unless UB could find a way to process its growing amounts of compost.
The key to the new system’s success is UB’s commercial “composting” machine, called a decomposer. After food scraps are taken to the Statler Commissary and ground into a shredded slaw, the mixture is fed into a dehydrator unit that heats the contents to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, essentially sanitizing it and killing harmful bacteria. When cooled in trash barrels, packed in plastic tubs and labeled, it’s ready to go. Essentially an inert, organic soil fertilizer, the end product is light and fibrous, rich in calcium and phosphorus (from those chicken bones), and available free of charge for anyone at UB or in the community who requests it. Campus landscapers use it to mulch trees and dress flowerbeds.
Tom Ludtka with food scrap mixture, soon to be a fertilizer often used in mulch.
In fact, the public is welcome to stop by the commissary to collect some of the material, says Ludtka, who can be contacted at 716-645-2832 for details. He proudly gives tours of the facility, including shelves of the fertilizer labeled by “vintage” and the ingredients of its former lives as eggshells, pumpkins, lettuce—even hot dogs.
After extensive research, UB purchased the $25,000 decomposer system from a manufacturer in South Korea called Eco-Smart Co. Ltd.—one of the few companies in the world that were making such machines, according to Ludtka. The investment was a pioneering move, and CDS officials say the payoff has been huge. “Only a few schools were doing it this way at the time,” says Ludtka. The machine went into service in June 2009 and now processes 660 pounds of food waste a day, producing a whopping 43,000 pounds (21.5 tons) of soil amendment a year. What used to take more than two months to break down in the outdoor composting pile, Ludtka says, now takes just 14 hours to be sorted, ground and dried.
Excess raw food waste, including items like pineapple tops that the decomposer’s grinder can’t handle is sent to Good Earth Horticulture Inc., a commercial composting facility in Lancaster, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb. “We were one of the first major institutions in Erie County to do this on such a scale,” says Moscati about UB’s composting efforts. “It’s become a sustainable business model for campus dining, and it also supports the local economy and minimizes our environmental impact.”
The public is welcome to stop by the Statler Commissary, North Campus, to collect compost. Call 716-645-2832 for details.
Furthermore, all UB retail dining shops (Putnam’s, Bert’s, etc.) and Governors, Goodyear and Red Jacket dining halls now recycle their pre–consumer waste left over from food preparation and some post–consumer material thrown away by students. And, as the need for trucks to ship waste decreases, so do the corresponding “tipping” fees, Moscati explains. Fewer trucks mean a friendlier carbon footprint.
Local schools, including Niagara University, SUNY Geneseo and SUNY Fredonia, are visiting UB to observe the decomposer at work. “Other SUNY schools are considering them for their campuses,” Ludtka says. “We’re at the point where we’re looking at getting another machine to keep up with demand.”
Going hand-in-hand with composting was CDS’ decision in 2009 to go trayless, which reduces the amount of food sent to the decomposer in the first place. Without trays, students are more careful about selecting their meals and therefore less likely to waste food. Less waste also means CDS uses less water energy and fewer harmful chemicals for dishwashing.
“Through such initiatives as recycling, organic composting, biodegradable packaging, energy management and sustainable food programs, we are working to instill sustainability principles here at UB and within the Western New York community,” says Jeff Brady, CDS’ executive director. “Our students understand the importance of energy and resource conservation. Going trayless, while simple, has had a significant positive impact on the campus,” Brady states.
This fall, CDS also introduced a new “eco-clamshell” container made of dishwasher-safe, BPA-free polypropylene. BPA, the abbreviation for bisphenol-A, is a chemical used to harden plastics in some food containers that some studies show may be linked to cancer, learning disabilities, infertility and obesity. The free, reusable containers, which eliminate the polystyrene “foam” boxes that can leach harmful chemicals and do not break down in landfills, are checked in and out at mealtimes through students’ UB cards. After each use, CDS cleans, sanitizes and redistributes them, giving students an environmentally friendly takeout option.
The composting and trayless initiatives are just two of many environmental programs designed to help UB achieve “climate neutrality,” part of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment signed by President John B. Simpson in 2007.
“We’re just getting started,” says Ludtka, smiling as he dips his hand into a barrel of soil amendment and sifts through what will be, come spring, a gardener’s best friend.
A writer and editor with University Communications, Lauren Newkirk Maynard is a member of UB’s Environmental Task Force.
UB’s Campus Dining & Shops (CDS) is taking a lead role in the university’s sustainability initiatives through composting, recycling, trayless dining, refillable beverage mugs, reusable to-go trays and local food purchasing. Here are a few food-related facts to digest: