Composting Allows WMU to Turn its Food into a Resource

Posted by Hongor Batbold on
Did you know that Americans waste an average of one pound of food per person per day? Where does all this food waste go? Mostly to a landfill. However, times are changing, and composting is becoming a popular way to recycle. Did you know composting could reduce 36 million tons of food waste from landfills if everyone practiced it? Composting is not only great for your plants and flowers, your own health, and the planet’s health, but it can be fun too. 

Composting Project 

The Office for Sustainability (OfS) is beginning the second phase of a student-run composting project on Western Michigan University’s (WMU) main campus. The Composting project aims at recycling organic waste materials here at campus, helping to reduce waste and to create nutrient-rich soil products. This fall, the OfS provided containers for 16 departments/units that expressed interest in composting food scraps, otherwise known as a feedstock. These containers are placed in accessible locations by the departments/units to collect feedstock. OfS student researchers collect containers every week and leave clean buckets in place for the following week. The collected feedstocks are taken to the OfS, Community Garden and/or the Gibbs House via bicycle trailer and electric van where varying composting methods are used to turn the feedstock into compost. Composting methods include vermicomposting, static pile composting and sheet composting. Once the food waste has been turned into compost, this nutrient-dense material will be given away, used by the OfS, or turned over to Landscape Services and it will be added back to the soil on Western’s campus for use in lawns, gardening, flower beds and other applications.


What is composting?

Composting is a system that utilizes natural processes to decompose organic materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. The rate at which materials decompose in a composting pile depends on several factors, such as pile size, material inputs and how often it is turned. Oxygen, a key element in the composting process is needed to support the growth of bacteria to break down the organic materials. For this reason, composting piles are turned to ensure that oxygen is available throughout the pile to help speed up the decomposition process. The end product of composting is fertile, nutrient-rich soil. 
So, you might be interested in what can be composted? Items that can be composted include fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, meats, cheeses, and bread. The process that we use allows us to compost items you might not be able to with home systems. On every composting bin provided by the OfS you will find this list of items that can and cannot be composted as a reminder to students and staff. The green composting containers are located in 16 departments and units all across the campus. Just like trash bins, these composting bins are emptied frequently to avoid the buildup of odors. 

Composting Champions

Krystal York is a Ph.D. student in Electrical Engineering. Her research focuses on energy efficient semi-conductor technologies. The unique aspect of her research is that it focuses on making environmentally friendly technologies even more environmentally friendly by concentrating on what materials were used to make these technologies, working to utilize elements that have recycling infrastructure and are more earth-abundant. 
Krystal is a student sustainability coordinator for several projects at OfS, her main focus is a composting project and two garden sites at the Gibbs House. When OfS completed the aquaponics project, Krystal started a composting project with a few buckets in the back studio at the office. She said, ‘I want to show the students they can do vermicomposting themselves.' Krystal points out the several ways you can start composting in your apartment or backyard. She suggests starting small is vital. "You’ll need a compost bin, which you can buy from a garden supply store or make yourself. There are a number of online composting guides that explain how you can compost food and yard waste. And if you don’t have a yard, you can also compost inside your garage or even apartment through vermicomposting." This takes a bit more effort but will reduce waste, preventing greenhouse gases and create a great soil amendment. 
Even though Krystal is studying and researching energy-efficient and environmentally friendly technologies on the technical side, she believes sustainability work needs a holistic approach. She said, “the sustainable benefits of compost extend far beyond the gardening.” Composting helps prevent water pollution by preventing pollutants from entering runoff or seeping into groundwater. A layer of compost over the soil can stop erosion and prevents contaminants such as pesticides and herbicides from spreading. Microorganisms in compost piles help break down pollutants –inorganic residues from fertilizers, pesticides, or chemical preservatives. These contaminants would normally enter the soil and get used as part of the plant/food cycle or eventually be absorbed into groundwater or runoff. Using compost can help keep water supplies clean for everyone. Composting is not only healthy for plants, but it can decrease waste going to the landfill, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water quality, save water and even create jobs.
Justin Gish, is a project manager at OfS. He is in a charge of the composting program and has always been passionate about composing. Justin started composting in his own home after receiving training from the US Compost Institute at Cornell University in NY. Justin says “composting is important to advancing sustainability on campus, because every time you grow something the plants take nutrients out of the ground. You need to put back those nutrients to the soil. The perfect way to do it is by composting. If you don’t use those organic materials, it will just go to the landfills. One of the great things about composting is you can do it in your home. A lot of things that are good for the environment, you might not be able to afford, like an electric car or solar panels in your home. For composting, everyone can do it and afford to do it. Looking from science point of view, it is also fun to watch the process. You start with feedstock or food scraps, add some woodchips or carbon and you can watch it decompose. In the end, you will have a different product.” Justin also pointed out the enthusiasm of community involvement in this project, especially active interest from different departments and units here at WMU. He mentioned the Department of Philosophy was the first office to be involved and receive a composting bucket. It started as one administrative assistant at this department shared the news with other administrators and the next thing you know 16 other departments expressed their interest in having a composting bin. When asked about what are widespread misconceptions about composting, Justin said “most people think composting is messy and it stinks. It doesn’t have to. If you have the right combination of carbon, air and water, it does not stink.”


What's Next

This fall the OfS has increased capacity to accept organic waste giving students and members of the campus community more reasons to compost their food waste. When you place something in a compost bin not only are you diverting waste from landfills, but you are also helping push composting technologies forward, allowing greater volumes of organic materials to be recovered. This includes ensuring those food scraps on your plate are not wasted but instead are transformed into a valuable resource. Justin points out the long-term goal for the composting project is expanding into the university-wide composting initiative. This includes all the departments and dining halls, that he would like to see with no organic material going into the garbage. OfS welcomes any student or staff member who is interested in composting.  You can volunteer during their open volunteer hours every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the fall semester. You will learn about different methods of composting, you will get to feed the worms, assist with building new worm bins, weigh the compost output and more!