Education

University of Iowa pushes dorm-room composting

'College is all about trying new things'

Beth MacKenzie (right), Recycling Coordinator for Office of Sustainability, explains the UI Resident Hall Composting Program to Olivia Bohlmann (left), freshman from Ottumwa, and Meredith Long (center), freshman from Ankeny, during the On Iowa Open House at the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability in the Old Capitol Town Center in Iowa City on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Beth MacKenzie (right), Recycling Coordinator for Office of Sustainability, explains the UI Resident Hall Composting Program to Olivia Bohlmann (left), freshman from Ottumwa, and Meredith Long (center), freshman from Ankeny, during the On Iowa Open House at the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability in the Old Capitol Town Center in Iowa City on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Pizza boxes are inevitable in university dorm rooms, but one place they don’t have to go is the garbage.

The same is true for apple cores, orange peels, moldy bread, and many to-go containers — which is why the University of Iowa this fall has launched a first-of-its-kind composting initiative to educate students on what to do when their eyes are bigger than their stomachs.

“In general, we’re finding about 30 percent of waste going into the trash is actually organic material that could be composted,” Beth MacKenzie, recycling coordinator in the UI Office of Sustainability, said about results from recent building audits.

During a three-day “open house” last week, the UI sustainability office made available 1,125 individual compost bins to first-year and other students living in the residence halls in hopes they’ll deliver accumulated scraps weekly to drop sites at Burge, Hillcrest, and Catlett residence halls.

“We are encouraging them to empty their bins once a week for cleanliness purposes,” MacKenzie said.

The student-centered initiative — which received $8,510 in start up costs from UI Student Government — aims to build on several years of composting in dining facilities across the UI residence halls, Iowa Memorial Union, and UI Hospitals and Clinics campus.

What started via pilot program in 2007 and expanded to the residence halls in 2014 today diverts more than 325 tons of university-created compostable “garbage” from the landfill every year — including more than 215 tons from the three participating dorm dining facilities.

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Compostables come in both pre- and post-consumer form, with prep cooks composting potato peels — for example — and students adding in uneaten food after meals in the dining centers.

UI Housing and Dining blends it all together into a pulper, which extracts water and creates pseudo pancakes delivered to Iowa City’s industrial composting facility. There, according to the university, the material is transformed into “black and gold” organic matter that area green thumbs use on lawns and gardens.

“They run out of compost,” MacKenzie said. “It’s something people really like to use.”

The university wants to expand composting, as waste reduction is paramount to its sustainability goals. A UI waste audit from 2014 found 29 percent could have been prevented by composting, which has proved environmental, economic, and social benefits.

On the national scale, a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report found Americans trash about 40 percent of the food supply annually, valued at $165 billion. Curbing just 15 percent of those losses would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans a year, according to the UI Office of Sustainability.

But growing composting on the UI campus necessitates student involvement and education, as MacKenzie said contamination is a big concern.

“The threshold for contamination in organics is very very low,” she said. “If there is 1 percent contamination, then the Iowa City composting facility won’t accept our material.”

Making sure students know what they can and can’t compost through bulletins and fliers stuck to those individual dorm room bins increases the odds they won’t dump dental floss or Styrofoam or waxed paper or other non-negotiables into a compost heap — and ruin it.

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It also ups the chances those students will keep composting throughout their Hawkeye career and later in life — as everyone who grabs a bin gets connected and receives tips, tricks, and communication on relevant issues.

“I’ve never composted before, but I love helping the environment, and college is all about trying new things,” UI freshman Anna Nelson, 18, from Des Moines, told The Gazette in an email.

She and her roommate grabbed one of the individual compost bins during the open house last week and together committed to picking snacks that can be composted or at least partially.

“We decided early on to reduce our carbon footprint and recycle when we can by buying fair trade and sustainable goods, composting, and being more thoughtful about our purchases,” she said in her email. “I’m so grateful that the U of I is making an effort, and it makes me feel proud to be a Hawkeye.”

Anyone who missed last week’s compost “open house” can pick up a dorm-room bin at Burge, Catlett, and Hillcrest residence halls.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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