University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus keeps green through a variety of efforts.
Photo: Patrick O'Leary
Ever greener campus
From verdant lawns to used coffee filters, the U manages its grounds 'greenly'
By Deane Morrison
It's no accident that the University's Twin Cities campus draws so many remarks about its beauty (in summer, anyway). Besides its regular groundskeepers and recyclers, the U employs a small army of about 100 students to keep both appearances and practices green.
Those practices begin with making the most of the plant material on the campus's more than 6.5 million square feet of grass, trees, shrubs, and flowers.
"All our herbaceous organic waste is composted and reused," says Les Potts, grounds superintendent. "We mix it up into what we call our campus soil mix. It's used when we do relandscaping—that means digging up and installing new plants."
Woody material is ground up and mulched in shrub beds or around trees, where it forms a barrier between trunks and power mowers.
Even though Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes (out-of-staters: check our license plates), the U conserves water wherever possible. A central system controls sprinkling, which is done mostly overnight, and uses rain sensors to shut down after a certain amount of rainfall. Water runoff is minimized by rain gardens, by passage through sandy "filtration basins" and into storm sewers, or by seeping through soil via "infiltration basins" en route to replenishing an aquifer.
Crews continually experiment with species of grass, such as fescues, which tolerate drought better than bluegrass. Also, in areas like high-traffic patches where bluegrass does best, they try out new bluegrass varieties that get along with less water and fertilizer. Students pitch in on most tasks, including mowing, aerating, planting, and picking up litter.
"They help on tree removal, too, but they don't run chainsaws and rarely climb," says Potts.
In the winter, a forecast of snow sends groundskeepers reaching for salt to pretreat hard walking and driving surfaces and keep snow from bonding to them. They apply the salt in a brine rather than crystals.
"With brine, it hits the target and stays in place," says Potts. "You use less of it, and it doesn't blow off." As a result of pretreating and the use of brine, the U has cut its road salt use 41 percent.
Recycling mops up
While celebrating its silver anniversary this year, the University's Recycling Program is hardly resting on its laurels. Instead, it is running a pilot program in three campus buildings (Morrill, Hanson and Pattee halls) to recycle food waste and organic material.
"When we've learned from that, we will expand throughout campus," says recycling coordinator Dana Donatucci.
The project involves, first, collecting all used paper towels (and animal bedding, when animal care buildings are brought into the system), then all food waste in the building. Second, buildings will convert from disposable to compostable containers, as the Minneapolis and St. Paul student unions already have begun to do. Third, buildings will be set up to collect compostable food waste and compostable utensils.
The fourth and final step will be hardest: ensuring that takeout food brought onto campus will travel in compostable containers.
"We would work with [businesses near campus] to set up compostable takeout containers or have them available for U folks," says Donatucci. "You have to get businesses in the area to be willing to do that. That's down the road.
In all, he says, 25 percent of the U's waste stream is organic material that could be captured for composting. That amounts to about 2,000 tons a year.
Among other projects, Donatucci says his office is ratcheting up the supply of reusable office castoffs. People send office furniture and furnishings to the Como Recycling Facility, which operates in conjunction with the nearby Reuse Program warehouse.
Recyclers have been taking items with reuse potential, such as chairs, tables, and scrap metal, but now they are adding smaller things like hanging folders and three-ring notebooks.
"We pull those out and make them available for U departments," says Donatucci. "We're trying to build that inventory before rollout. We hope to start it by the end of this year.