Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Composting Audits at UIC

Good news, everyone!  UIC is moving one step closer to a food scrap composting program.

This week Sodexo, the organization responsible for serving food in the dining facilities on campus, will help UIC and the Office of Sustainability conduct a sample audit of the food waste in our dining halls.

This is pretty awesome for sustainability geeks like us, but I know some people have no idea what the big deal about compost is, or that it's so great UIC is going to be doing an audit. I'll try to explain some of that here.

Think about the natural cycle of things, like in a forest. There are animals and plants, including things that produce what we consider "food scraps," like an apple growing on a tree. Those food scraps, along with fallen leaves, dead plants and animals, and other organic material, decompose naturally. As food scraps and all this organic material decompose they produce methane, a very potent greenhouse gas - it's over 20 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The presence of methane is a natural thing, and is usually absorbed by other organisms - like bacteria, or fungi, or scavengers - which come along and consume the decomposing material. It's a beautiful cycle that has evolved over time to create a fairly "closed loop" of material; "waste" doesn't exist in nature... a "waste product" is just another name for a resource that hasn't properly been matched to its consumer.

Now, think about a landfill. All this stuff, including food scraps, just sit there for years - although, there are certainly scavengers (think seagulls, rats) that come by and pick up some food, maybe. The methane that got absorbed by natural processes just leaks out, and up, into the atmosphere, and is a contributor to climate change. In 2009, methane emissions from landfills made up 17% of total methane emissions in the US, the 3rd highest behind Natural Gas Systems (like powerplants, home heating units, etc.) and something called Enteric Fermentation (I think that's a technical way of saying cow burps and farts).  Yes, farts are one of the highest sources of carbon emissions.

So besides being (usually) stinky and polluting, landfills consume a lot of space that could otherwise be used for different purposes...like parks, forests, or other nice nature-y space. (To their credit, landfill management companies can partner with municipalities to cover and convert old landfills into useful space - see Freshkills Park in New York City.)  Landfills have been necessary for a long time, but as we run out of space because we're an expanding population that produces a lot of stuff, we need to come up with some better solutions.  Fortunately, composting has been around for ... well, forever, and we're starting to (re)learn how to take advantage of it.

Composting (a way to encourage decomposing material to do so in a clean and separated manner) removes that stinky stuff from landfills and creates a product that is useful to gardeners and farmers - remember, waste is just another name for a misallocated resource.  There are also some innovative ways to use compost (check out The Plant in Chicago, for an example), and there are actually some UIC people researching and testing ways that both composting (and landfills!) can be better.

With all that said, composting could be a really good solution for UIC to better manage its waste.  Although, in order to manage something, we need to measure it - and that's where this audit comes in.  We're going to spend some time tomorrow helping people in the dining halls sort their food, so we can get a sample size of how much compostable food we throw away every day.  From there, we can start to make estimates on how much equipment, training, and logistical support we'll need to get those food scraps composted.

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1 comment:

Office of Sustainability said...

UIC News reported on the results: http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/uicnews/articledetail.cgi?id=15946