Earth, worms, rats feed off compost

By Lisa Schulz

Earth wasn’t the only consumer benefiting from Columbia’s compost project launch in August 2011. Rats were also curious to explore the mix of fresh sandwich scraps, apple cores, leaves, soil and coffee grounds. But as winter arrives, critters shouldn’t.

The Recycling Outreach Program’s new compost project was first put into action at Columbia events, like new student Convocation. College cafes were added to the food waste pickup at the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave.; the Wabash Campus Building, 623 S. Wabash Ave.; and the Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave, totaling an average of 10 to 15 gallons.

Solely in September, the initiative collected and composted 900 pounds of food, according to Neale Baldyga, recycling outreach coordinator.

“Rats are something we have to be aware of,” Baldyga said. “That’s pretty much one of the main reasons [that] we would never be able to compost on site. The Loop is just full of them, so to have a place where rotting food is—that’s just like heaven for them.”

The secure bins that ultimately hold compost don’t have an infestation of rodents, said John Wawrzaszek, recycling manager of Facilities and Operations. The team will be proactive, establish immediate pickup and tackle problems as they arise, which may be in the hot summer months like June or July, he said. With the weather now, food should freeze, rather than attract animals and stay fresher for longer.

Baldyga collects food scraps three times a week from cafes, which are each given chemical-free buckets from the Photography Department. At events, even when only recycling services are requested, three to five student workers help sort and collect the potential compost from catering services.

Leftovers from caterers at events are nearly equivalent to cafe collections, not including patrons’ scraps. Collections from events are usually disposed of the next day, Wawrzaszek said.

From the secured 32- and 96-gallon bins, compost is transported by the Resource Center, a non-profit environmental organization, to Land and Lakes, a food waste facility, 2000 E. 122nd St.

“Anything that we would have to dispose of in the city has a cost,” Wawrzaszek said. “We’re just choosing a more ethical choice of where the material is going once it’s being disposed of.”

When working with food waste, in order to create soil-enriching compost, natural plants, such as grass clippings and leaves, are needed as well. This produces nitrogen, which breaks down and oxides the food waste, keeping it fresher for longer, Wawrzaszek said.

Brown waste, like coffee grounds and liquids, is also needed, to create a more nutritious balance to give back to the Earth, Baldyga said.

At Convocation, 780 pounds of food waste was composted, which is how much could be collected monthly from a cafe. This doesn’t neglect or demean collecting from a cafe because by the end of the week, it could add up to 60 pounds, Wawrzaszek said.

Cafe pickups are simple and effortless for employees, said Nyle Fisher, general manager of the University Cafes.

“Anything that we can do to give back to the Earth is important,” Fisher said. “Americans consume a lot. It makes me feel good that we’re not wasting anything that could be used. I’m really excited about that.”

The cafe recycles other waste products, such as paper and plastic items, Fisher said.

Next, he’s looking into biodegradable packaging to continue the cafes’ environmentally conscious contribution, but prices for food are likely to increase since the packaging is expensive, he said.

In keeping with the careful collection from small cafes, Baldyga said he doesn’t plan on students independently composting on campus due to easy contamination that could occur.

“We wouldn’t want to just open for the community to bring their stuff in, because then we’d be dealing with a ton of waste,” Baldyga said. “I’d love to have everyone compost, but that’s not realistic.”