Large-Scale Composting Solutions

Composting Food Scraps at Hospitals and Universities

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Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2015 2:02 pm

Composting is a great way to divert food scraps away from the trash can — but how can it be applied in a larger context, such as in a hospital or university cafeteria? Composting on such a large scale not only reduces negative impacts on the environment, but also provides an opportunity to educate thousands of patrons about the benefits of going green.

We asked these three university and hospital professionals four questions about their experiences implementing composting programs:

Our four questions, and their responses are below.

1) Why did you decide to adopt a university/hospital-wide composting program?

Hart: Our waste stream is monitored by the city of Ames. It was found that a lot of grease was being sent down our drains. We saw a potential solution when the hospital was approached by GreenRU to compost our garbage. It has been successful in Des Moines area hospitals and we have been doing this for over two years now.

Pashtan: Boston University made the decision to divert its organics to composting because of its environmental benefits. By reducing or diverting the amount of waste going to an incinerator, we are lessening the harm done by the carbon released into the atmosphere from burning. We are also contributing to the creation of a natural fertilizer — compost — which is beneficial to local farms, landscapers and parks. The other great benefit to a composting program in a university is that it creates awareness about waste diversion and reduction. Our program, which includes signage and educational materials, forces people to think about their disposal options and choices, thus making it a more conscious action. We’ve also adopted a diversion program for our catered events, which further increases awareness and a positive environmental impact. When visitors come to campus and attend an event, we hope to send the message that we are concerned about the environment and would like our guests to participate, or at least feel good knowing that we are doing the best that we can to lower our environmental footprint.

Kroymann: In 2008, on Earth Day, the University of Iowa made a newfound commitment to achieve sustainability locally, in its own daily activities, and globally, in its work to serve Iowa and the world through education, research and service. University faculty, staff and students were summoned to be active participants in the cause. The university outlined seven sustainability goals, including composting of organic waste. In 2012, given a study released by the United States Department of Agriculture on national food waste, the timing was right to begin implementation of a comprehensive composting program at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics within the department of Food and Nutrition Services.

2) What are the logistics of composting food waste on such a large scale?

Hart: Because you want to keep the areas clean and free of odor and spillage, you must have a designated area for food waste containers.

Pashtan: We rely on our partner and hauler — Save that Stuff — to pick up our organics seven days a week, in order to avoid the backup of waste. We also have extensive training for our team on an ongoing basis, as well as programs that seek to educate our community on how to properly sort their waste. In the future, we hope to employ new technology to further facilitate the disposal of organics on campus.

Kroymann: In 2012, roughly 12 percent of the food that the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics prepared for its staff, patients and visitors went into the garbage. UIHC took a three-pronged approach to reduce food waste: reduce, donate and compost. Hospital staff began by identifying low-selling items and using that data to reduce menu selections. The hospital also increased its donations to Table to Table, a local charity that collects and distributes food. The hospital also switched to compostable food containers and began using a pulper to pulverize its leftover food waste, which then goes to the city landfill each week for composting.

3) What unexpected challenges arose? How were they solved?

Hart: None really. Keeping the containers emptied and clean is the biggest challenge, but the company has done a good job of doing that.

Pashtan: Over the course of our composting program, we have encountered challenges related to the large volume of organics generated during peak times of operation, which necessitated increasing hauling frequency, as well as mechanical issues with our complex pulper system. We’ve also had to address issues of contamination on an ongoing basis, which we’ve done with increased training for our staff, as well as hiring a green team each semester to help the university community sort their waste properly.

Kroymann: One of the first challenges surrounded the functionality of the compostable takeout products. Customer feedback indicated that the compostable takeout containers were not as sturdy as the Styrofoam containers. The complaints essentially went away with education on why the products were different and the benefits to the environment. Also, on the patient units, compostable straws were initiated. The plastic straws were bendable but the compostable ones are not. Patient and nursing feedback was firm that the patients needed bendable straws to drink liquids while reclined in bed. In this example, on the inpatient units only, plastic straws were reintroduced as a patient satisfier.

Another challenge has been maintaining the integrity of the organic materials. A poster was developed and displayed above disposal containers labeled “Compost,” “Recycle,” and “Trash.” Despite educational efforts, any margin of error would contaminate the organic material and make it unacceptable for composting. To combat this issue, FNS staff sorts the compost containers to remove any non-organic products ensuring it goes to the composting facility with no foreign objects.

The biggest challenge was storage of the organic waste. There was no ideal location to store the organic material until it was picked up to be transported to the composting facility. Originally the organic material was stored in an internal room near the sanitation unit; however, odor was a significant issue. The number of pickups was increased; however, that did not solve the issue. Ultimately, a walk-in cooler was constructed on the food and nutrition dock and the organic material is stored there and picked up on a weekly basis and transported to the composting facility.

4) What has the response from cafeteria patrons been?

Hart: Ames is home to Iowa State University, which has a composting program as part of its larger campus sustainability program. People appreciate that, like the university, we are doing our part to reduce the amount of garbage and grease going out into the waste stream.

Pashtan: Students have had a very positive response to our composting program. Through our annual dining survey and general feedback, students have told us that it makes them feel good to know that the university is being environmentally responsible and taking action to protect our environment. Our students like and appreciate the sorting stations at our student union food court, because of their high visibility and positive message.

Kroymann: The response from cafeteria patrons has been overwhelmingly positive. Through education, any concerns have been quickly erased by explaining the benefits of composting. Patrons have been on-board with the program and Food and Nutrition Services has received many positive comments. Reducing waste has been a campus-wide initiative and the hospital staff and patients are excited to be a part of the solution.

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