This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Machine turns food waste into soil nutrient

Pierre Fouche is one of the few Haitians studying earthquake engineering.

Commissary manager Tom Ludtka holds jars of food scraps (right) and the soil amendment (left). Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

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Published: February 3, 2010

The food waste decomposer in the recycling and composting center in Statler Commissary, North Campus, looks like a giant, stainless steel oven. The imposing machine is an alchemist of sorts, transforming everyday refuse—onion skins, egg shells, chicken bones, bell pepper tops, baked goods, coffee grinds, banana peels—into a rich, brown soil amendment gardeners can use to fertilize their plots.

The apparatus, which traveled to Buffalo from South Korea, arrived at the university this fall, adding to Campus Dining & Shops’ (CDS) arsenal of tools for “greening” its operations. Initial estimates indicate that composting kept more than 115,000 pounds of trash out of landfills between June 2009 and Jan. 1. The recycling of plastic, metal, cardboard, office paper, glass and toner cartridges cut out another 288,000 pounds of garbage.

“Why are we doing it? We think it’s the right thing to do, and if somebody doesn’t start down that path, like they say, nobody’s going to do it…We decided that we want to be proactive,” says commissary manager Tom Ludtka, who emphasizes that CDS’ initiatives are just a small part of UB’s larger effort to promote sustainability.

“What we try to tell everybody is that we believe in what we do, and it takes small steps by everyone to get the green job done,” Ludtka says. “I tell everybody who comes through on a tour, one voice is just a whisper. A hundred voices is a song.”

The new decomposer and composting in general are among the newest features of CDS’ environmental campaign. The organic fertilizer the machine creates is available for anyone at UB or in the community who requests it. (Broken down poultry bones, which contain slow-release calcium and phosphorus, make for a particularly rich additive, Ludtka says.) CDS also works with University Facilities to maintain two large composting piles in Beane Lot, North Campus, that produce soil the university uses in garden beds on campuses.

Ludtka says that although CDS began composting about five years ago, it was only over the past two years that administrators created and implemented a comprehensive plan for all campus food service centers to partake in the process. Now, employees in all UB dining areas place compostable goods in plastic buckets—airtight and made from recycled material—that workers ship to Statler each day.

Prior to purchasing the decomposer, which sanitizes waste, employees threw away all “post-consumer” food, including leftovers. For health reasons, only items that customers had not touched, such as vegetable scraps in kitchens, could be composted.

The new machine, along with the elimination of trays in dining halls, has led to a dramatic reduction in the amount of garbage UB produces. Trash from the Red Jacket Dining Center in the Ellicott Complex now fills three or four 90-gallon totes per day, for instance, down from 15 or 16 of those same receptacles not long ago.

And CDS is not stopping there. Ludtka says that when it comes to such disposables as plates and utensils, the unit is looking to buy more biodegradable items—cutlery made from material such as potato starch and soy oil instead of plastic, for instance. Ludtka and his colleagues are even exploring ways to offset carbon emissions associated with the electricity they use to run everything from their unit’s Web site to the decomposer, which uses about $13 worth of power each day.

To request a portion of the organic fertilizer that the decomposer produces, contact Ludtka at 645-2832.

Reader Comments

Jessica Biegaj says:

I love that employees and community members can get some of the compost. It's perfect in time for spring.

Posted by Jessica Biegaj, Community Relations Associate for Programming, 03/11/10

Eric Vogan says:

This is a step in the correct direction, however, I wonder if a "methane digester" would have been a better investment for the University.

Posted by Eric Vogan, SUNY UB Law Student, 02/10/10

Marshall Bolles says:

The opem air compost piles have become a problem for the Beane area as it has attracted some very large and healthy looking rats. The starling population is leaving massive amounts of droppings on buildinds, walkways and vehicles. Maybe the compost should be containerized.

Posted by Marshall Bolles, Hazmat Tech, 02/08/10

Donna Mills says:

This is GREAT! I wasn't aware that there was any re-cycling of food waste going on until reading this article. It's great to find out that CDS can now compost post-consumer waste as well.

Posted by Donna Mills, Secretary 1, 02/08/10

Beth Walker says:

We have just begun a school cafeteria composting project using red wigglers. This article is very timely. Students can see that we may impact our cafeteria's waste on a small scale, but applying the same idea can have a large scale impact!

Posted by Beth Walker, Enrichment coordinator Marion Schools, LAI PhD student at UB, 02/08/10

Sue Tannehill says:

Terrific idea! My students will hear about this as the theme for my 201 students is environmentalism. Their third paper is about a solution, and perhaps some will choose to learn about this local solution and the equipment that makes it possible.

Posted by Sue Tannehill, adjunct UB faculty, 02/04/10