The University of Michigan’s Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS) announced the expansion of on-campus composting programs in support of their waste reduction initiative. OCS introduced composting through their Zero Waste Initiative in 2017, focusing on education, accessibility and implementation throughout the campus community.
Composting is the process of recycling organic matter by allowing it to decompose into fertilizer for the soil. Any food waste and materials that are Biodegradable Products Institute certified compostable are considered safe to compost, and BPI certification is designed to prevent greenwashing.
Benefits of composting include: reducing emissions from landfills, improving soil health and reducing food waste. The University aims to reduce food waste 40% by 2025;currently, food waste has been reduced by 32% since Fall 2021. All of the University’s compostable waste gets sent to the City of Ann Arbor’s compost site operated by WeCare.
There are currently over 1,000 compost bins in over 150 buildings on campus, but most of the bins are located in staff-focused areas, according to Anya Dale, manager of Waste Reduction and Engagement at OCS.
“(Compost bins in staff-focused areas) enables us to capture a lot of the compostable wastes with very minimal concern of contamination,” Dale said. “It’s really important that we minimize that contamination because the facility we take our compost to does not have a sorting mechanism for getting rid of contamination.”
Contaminants are materials that are not compostable and can damage the plants and soil during the compost process.
Plastic is one of the most prevalent contaminants; once mixed with the rest of the compost, animals might mistake plastic particles for food. Additionally, with heavy rainfall irrigation, the microplastic pieces could flow into water sources and contaminate the water.
Dale said a major goal for the University is to put more bins in student-populated areas to increase community engagement, but noted the addition of compost bins into student-populated areas comes with the potential tradeoff of more contamination.
In Fall 2022, OCS piloted an Adopt a Compost Bin program to gather student input on where the compost bins should be placed. The program allowed students to suggest a location and monitor the contamination of the bin for a month. If students noticed any problems with bins, they were encouraged to report to OCS for help. As part of the pilot, OCS created resources for students to look up the compostability of various products. The program tested 11 bin placements, including the LSA building, the Mason Hall Atrium and the Hatcher and Shapiro Libraries.
The program was successful in controlling contamination, Dale said. OCS hopes to conduct another round of pilots with another dozen bins to increase composting in student-populated areas in spring 2022
“(The pilot programs have) gone really well, and we want to do another round of those this spring,” Dale said. “We are trying to inform those placements based on some of the information from student focus groups.”
LSA sophomore Pauline Droege, vice president of finance and operations for Theta Alpha Psi, a professional sustainability fraternity. She said there needs to be more education on and student involvement in composting on campus.
“The University of Michigan made the right first step in putting the compost bins across campus, but I don’t think that students know how to compost properly,” Droege said. “I think that is a big barrier. Also, people just don’t care enough to sort their trash.”
OCS manages the Zero Waste Events Program in an effort to educate students on composting. Organizations interested in hosting a Zero Waste Event can ask OCS for educational resources and compostable materials such as utensils, compost boxes and composting services. The office also hosts Zero Waste training sessions where students and organizations can receive composting training. Dale said Zero Waste Events have reached a diverse range of audiences, not just those studying sustainability and the environment.
“The Zero Waste Events help so many student groups, not just environmental groups, to become familiar with Zero Waste principles and ideas,” Dale said.
OCS is also hosting focus groups this semester where facilitators discuss topics related to composting with student organizations. Some of the topics include off-campus composting, on-campus infrastructure and composting innovations. OCS Program Manager Nicole Berg said input from students in these groups will be used in future composting initiatives.
To increase community engagement, the Ann Arbor campus has been competing to make composting and recycling second nature for the University’s students and staff. The University participated in the Campus Race to Zero Waste (formerly known as RecycleMania), a waste reduction competition among colleges across North America, placing first in the 2020 RecycleMania. The University also hosts a parallel competition between campus buildings. For the second week of the Buhr Building, the Golf Course Clubhouse and Mosher-Jordan Hall had the highest diversion rate.
Berg said any OCS welcomes student input, as they are still planning composting expansions.
“I would like people to know, especially student organizations, that we are happy to come to different organizations, meetings and classes,” Berg said. “We are really happy to come to speak with you. If you do want to share something, as we are in this investigative phase of expansion, just email us at email@example.com. This is the time to reach out.”
Daily Staff Reporter Caroline Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.