ECO students clean up waste management
October 11, 2007 1:24 PM
Since 2006, the ECO Students, an on-campus environmental advocacy group, has helped the Student Center divert food waste.
After running a composting pilot program last spring, the group has entered the fall semester looking to improve flaws identified in the past project.
The group plans to have another pilot near the end of this semester, as it continues to research affordable compostable foodware and which receptacles the center should purchase to complete the other phases.
The students expect to finish researching by the end of October and present their findings to the center’s governing board in early November.
The ECO Students volunteered to help the Student Center after they audited its waste in spring of 2006, finding that about 75 percent of it could be composted. Ten percent of the Student Center’s waste is recyclable.
The group initially chose the center because separating and collecting its compostables seemed to be a reachable goal for student volunteers, said Yvette Michaud, a recent graduate still with the group.
Originally, the students’ plan had three phases. They planned to begin with collecting pre-consumption waste from restaurant kitchens. In the second phase, paper towels from restrooms would be collected and all plastic food packaging and cutlery would be replaced with compostable products.
Finally, the center’s dining area would include bins for the post-consumption waste, after which nearly 85 percent of the center’s waste would be diverted from the landfill.
Although some unpredicted obstacles have stalled full implementation, virtually all of the center’s pre-consumption organic waste is now collected as compost instead of trash. Sunset Scavenger collects at least 1,000 pounds from the center each day, according to plant engineer Tony Hayward.
The main stumbling block to further progress is the difficulty of properly creating a third waste stream, even in the microcosm of the student center. Replacing plastic utensils and packaging with compostables, for example, required asking multiple companies to voluntarily purchase the more expensive alternatives.
“There’s no model for this,” said Michaud. “Other Bay Area universities like Stanford have composting programs, but they have one vendor. We’re dealing with about seven.”
Another hindrance in fully implementing the program is the need for close coordination between every campus vendor. The restaurants must convert unanimously and nearly simultaneously before that portion of waste can be diverted.
Distinguishing conventional plastics from newer, biodegradable plastic also proved to be a problem. Though some compostable plastics are clearly marked, many of them have no discernible difference with petroleum-based plastics.
“We didn’t realize there was going to be so much difficulty with the plastics,” Michaud said.
And if Sunset Scavenger finds 10 percent or more non-compostables in a collection, the hauler will not take it, said Rick Sakow, member of ECO Students.
ECO Students tested their third phase last spring with a two-week pilot project it called a success. Group member Suzanne McNulty had originally predicted low participation and high contamination and was surprised at the results.
“The compost itself was overflowing,” McNulty said. “[The students] were doing it right, as best they could.”
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