Penn State ramping up composting efforts

For the CDTDecember 24, 2013 

— By June, green bins will accompany every group of trash and recycling containers in all Penn State academic and office buildings.

These bins are for composting. A sign above them alerts people to toss in food waste, soiled or wet paper, paper napkins, tissues, towels, compostable plastic cups and utensils, and pizza boxes.

It’s the latest and most visible effort by Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant, or OPP, in a composting program that has been in place for years.

Nadine Davitt, supervisor of solid waste management for OPP, said the program was begun in 1997 by OPP, the College of Agricultural Sciences and Housing and Food Services.

“A group of students asked why Penn State wasn’t composting, and we did not have a good answer,” she said. “The program began because interested and involved students asked a question.”

Collected composting material is taken to the Organic Materials Processing and Education Center at the OPP Building on campus. There, OPP runs its own composting operation.

“The compost is used in all of Penn State’s building operations where there is a need for soil,” Davitt said. “It’s also available to sale to the general public during the spring semester.”

Along with material from the bins in most academic and office buildings, Penn State collects compostable materials from most dormitories and organics from greenhouses and all dining hall operations, both in making and after eating meals.

From July 1, 2012 until June 30, 2013, Penn State composted 1,375 tons of food waste, or 2.75 million pounds.

“Food waste is still the biggest area for us to capture compostable materials,” Davitt said. “The initiative to collect waste from dining halls is unique among universities.”

“Composting while preparing food is engrained in the minds of our employees,” said Jo-Ann Marker, a manager of Penn State’s food services. “It’s like putting on their uniforms. They’re trained in it so much they barely have to think about it.”

Lisa Wandel, director of residential dining for the university, said the composting efforts by consumers could be improved.

“Most people only compost if it’s convenient for them,” she said. “Since a lot of people won’t go out of their way to scrape their food into the composting bins, we brought them closer to the tray drop-off and it’s helped. But the amount of food wasted can definitely be lowered.”

Davitt thinks education can help. OPP employees must sort through the composting materials to ensure that everything included is compostable. With proper education of students and faculty, composting misunderstandings can be cleared up, Davitt said.

Marker pointed out that running a program at a university is part of the problem.

“Our customers and consumers are ever-changing,” she said. “Any education needs to be continual so the constant flow of new students stays educated about what we’re doing.

“There isn’t much of a financial gain to composting, and our employees don’t like sorting half-eaten food. There’s nothing fun about it,” Marker added. “But in this day and age, not composting just feels wrong.”

“There’s a ripple effect through the community, as well,” Davitt said. “We have a model facility that people learn from, whether it’s regular people, universities or private industry. They come to see how Penn State composts.”

Jack Small is a Penn State journalism student.

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