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Every napkin counts

University Dining Services offers composting; increases biodegradeable items

By Pauline Oo

Alli Koch
Green Team intern Alli Koch at work

March 28, 2008

What would you do with a used napkin, apple core, straw wrapper, and the box that carried the slice of pizza you just wolfed down?

A. Dump it all in the garbage can B. Throw the box in the recycling bin and the rest in the garbage can. C. Toss it all in the compost bin

C is the answer, especially if you've had the meal at Minnesota Marketplace in Coffman Union, or at one of the 10 other dining locations on the Twin Cities campus. University Dining Services (UDS) introduced green compost bins and converted 30 percent of its packaging to biodegradable materials last fall.

"We thought it was the right thing to do," says Suzanne Hedrick, UDS marketing manager. "More and more compostable packaging became available to us, such as soda cups and sandwich containers, and we realized we could trade out what we're using with this biodegradable material."

The Organics Recycling for Compost Program is yet another sustainability initiative on UDS's expanding green, or eco-friendly, to-do list, which includes buying fair trade coffee and using cage- free eggs. UDS started its campaign to promote sustainability in 2005, triggered in part by the University's emphasis on improving sustainability practices and a growing trend among food service programs in universities nationwide to support sustainable efforts.

"We're also hearing from our customers that these types of programs that fall under sustainability, such as composting, recycling, fair trade, and humane treatment of animals, are things that they value and believe that their dining programs on campus should be embracing as well," says Karen DeVet, associate director of UDS.

Last semester, UDS collected 78 tons of compost material, and last month alone, it gathered 30 tons.

Food service waste is taken to the University's on-campus composting facility in St. Paul, where, along with large animal manure and small animal bedding, it's turned into soil that is used at some of the U's agricultural fields or sold to an outside vendor for landscaping projects in the metro area.

"Every napkin counts, and so does every pickle and apple core," says Hanna Mosca, a UDS Green Team intern. "Anything that we can take [and put in the compost bins] doesn't go into the landfill or garbage incinerator. And this makes a big difference to our environment. If we continue to use it or treat it the way we are, it's not going to be how it is in just a few years."

Fun facts on TC campus

In 2007:

UDS customers used 6,354,000 paper napkins made from recycled material and consumed 124,146 gallons of locally produced milk.

UDS bought 684 pounds of organic produce and 170,184 pounds of locally grown produce--a 184 percent increase over the previous year.

In September UDS created the Green Team Internship to enlist the help of students in promoting its earth-friendly programs and educating the Twin Cities campus community about the benefits of composting and recycling.

Mosca, a sophomore majoring in global studies, women's studies and social justice, is one of six interns stationed every day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at three UDS sites: the marketplace in Coffman Union, Carlson Dining Center in the Carlson School of Management, and Terrace Caf? in the St. Paul Student Center. The interns wear organic cotton T-shirts and are paid $9.25 an hour. Each person works as many hours as his or her class schedule will allow.

"Sometimes we work alone; sometimes we tag team," explains Mosca. "We have a few tasks throughout our shifts, but basically, I stand next to the green compost bin and tell students and faculty or whoever may be eating at the cafeterias what is or is not biodegradable, where it goes, and what the compost program is. [Being on the Green Team is] really about getting the word out about the program so that when we are not there, they can do it themselves and understand what this compost program is and the benefits of it."

Although only six months old, the program is a success because of the biodegradable compost bags. The bags didn't exist in 1986, when the University made its first compost of leaves and yard waste, or in mid 1990s, when the U tried its hand at composting food scraps from the residence hall kitchens.

"Compost bags have been available for the last four or five years, but they haven't been the right type of bag for us," says says Dana Donatucci, recycling supervisor at the University's Waste Abatement Services. "The plastic bags were degradable, meaning they would fall apart into tiny little plastic pieces, but they were not biodegradable, not truly becoming a part of the soil matrix."

The U's compost facility is about half the size of a football field and 200 feet wide. There are four compost heaps at any given time, says Donatucci, and each is "bigger than a house." It takes 45 days for the GreenWare packaging that UDS uses (soda cups and salad bowls, for instance) to break down. The packaging is made from polylactic Acid, a polymer derived from corn resin.

Did you know?

Landfills have been the most popular way in the United States of handling municipal waste for decades, but they're filling up. Incinerators are the major alternative.

Recycling and waste prevention divert materials from incinerators--a place for a controlled burning process--and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions from waste combustion.

Waste prevention and recycling (including composting) divert organic wastes from landfills, reducing the methane that would be released if these materials decomposed in a landfill.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

"It's not that difficult for us to sort in the kitchen," says DeVet. "It's a little bit more challenging to sort on the customer side. And that's really why the Green Team became so valuable to the program."

Mosca, who grew up composting on her family farm, says part of the challenge is because there's "that extra effort that you have to make, and a lot of people are busy and a lot of people don't care in that instant.

"People are more likely to talk to me again the next day or to make that effort of giving me their food scraps and napkins when I astound them with some quick fact."

So, is that the best part of her job--sharing what she knows with others?

Almost. It's "definitely talking with people," she says. And the worst part: fishing for compost fodder, though it's not a job requirement.

"I really try to get what I can, so I end up digging through the actual garbage some times," she says. "And that gets kinda gross some days."

To learn more about the UDS Organics Recycling for Compost Program and other sustainability initiatives, see the UDS Web site.