Better composting at the University of Minnesota

Publication date: 
February 27, 2015

Author: Michelle Dobbratz

Worst practice

These bins are located in a building that offers composting, but you’d never know it by this confusing set-up!

Have you ever seen something in your community that bothers you, but you weren’t sure what to do about it? That’s how I feel about the state of the composting system at the University of Minnesota. It really troubles me to watch valuable organic material, like food and compostable utensils, get turned into pollution every day. Although we have made progress in developing our composting system, it’s time to take the next steps so we can not only recycle organic material but also save money in the process.

Since the university started composting in 2007, quite a few people have stepped up to do their part. For example, the University Dining Services captures most organic waste in its jurisdiction, the Bell Museum hosts zero-waste events, and many areas on campus have invested in compostable packaging and single-use items. However, there’s still room to recover an additional 1,200 tons of organic material. In case you have a hard time visualizing 1,200 tons, it’s equivalent to the combined weight of the roughly 16,000 seniors and freshman at the U of M-Twin Cities.  We are missing the opportunity to recover fertile compost for gardeners and producers, and wasting money in the process. It costs the university four times as much to dispose of unsorted waste through incineration than it does to recycle organic material through composting.

Best practice

This is the best practice- all forms of disposal are available, signs are clear and visual, and bins are color coded. We need more of this!

With just a few simple steps, we can recover more of our compost to conserve the environment. From walking around campus, it’s clear that we need more compost bins and better signs where we do have bins. Very few buildings on campus have composting, and those that do often only have it in one place. Signs are confusing, contradictory, and hard to read for the tens of thousands of people on campus every day who are in a hurry. Best practices dictate that every trash point have access to all forms of recycling, that the receptacles are color-coded, and that visual signs are placed to help people sort in a hurry.

Similarly, we need to increase awareness of how easy it is to host a zero-waste event. If you are hosting an event that will serve 50 meals or more, you can fill out a short form a week beforehand to have Facilities Management collect all your waste and compost it. You do need to purchase compostable plates and utensils, but they are fairly inexpensive.

Grand prize

Thanks to my colleagues in the Grossman Lab and APS program for being so supportive! Special thanks to JiJY for helping me with my slide design.

I presented my idea to a panel of judges as part the Operational Excellence Open Innovation Showcase, and was awarded the grand prize for having the most feasible, impactful idea. Shortly afterward, Minnesota Student Association passed a position statement supporting my idea. There are already a number of staff and student groups working on this, and I am excited to see how things progress going forward. At a large institution like this, change can be slow, but by getting tapped into the community of individuals dedicating their time to this important issue, I am optimistic for the future.