Sammy Jolly’15 gets behind the wheel of the FacMan cart, loaded with seven 5-gallon buckets. She reverses expertly out of the garage and down the parking lot behind the Athletic building. I hop in next to her and we bump along, up academy, in front of Hoben, behind Hicks, and down a packed, icy trail to the center of the Grove.
Sammy spends 10 hours a week hauling buckets of rotting food around campus. She drives a cart from the coffee shop in the library to the President’s house to the grove collecting hundreds of pounds of food waste every day. It’s heavy, sloppy, and pungent. She’s invested in her work composting; turning the forgotten apples that became soft in your refrigerator’s crisper, the extra pans of lasagna uneaten in the caf, the crusts and extras we return to the kitchen on the revolving racks because we’re too full, into nutrient-dense plant fertilizer.
According to the USDA, Americans waste enough food everyday to fill a 90,000-seat football stadium. That’s 141 trillion unconsumed calories per year. We throw away tons of edible food at the levels of production (on farms), processing (in factories and kitchens), and consumption (out of our refrigerators and off of our plates). The 133 billion pounds our country wasted in 2010 was worth about $16.6 billion.
In a perfect world, composting would exist only to repurpose inedible food scraps – banana peels, carrot tops, onionskins. It now functions as one way to lessen the impact of mass amounts of perfectly edible food waste. Our campus food waste program was developed in 2006, when data from an audit showed that we were sending nearly two tons of food to the landfill per week.
Sammy is one of two compost interns who works for Facilities Management. She spends hours carting and dumping food scraps to enable our campus food waste operations to function. All post-consumer food waste from the caf is composted in the two Earth Tubs in the Facilities Management parking lot, and food waste from off-campus student housing, and a few sites on campus, is composted in piles in the grove.
My fingers are stiff from the bitter air by the time we heave the buckets out of the cart in the grove. Sammy weighs each bucket with a small, brass suspension scale she attaches to a cable dangling from a branch. Five buckets of coffee grounds from the Book Club, one with papaya peels discernable among sweet, fermented-smelling fruit scraps from President’s W.O’s house, and one with a few whole apples and onions from an off campus house add up to 112 pounds.
We dump the potpourri of food waste, bucket-by-bucket, on the ground in front of the wooden structure built three years ago. I use a flat-edged hoe to chop up the food scraps. I slice grapefruit peels, coffee filters, avocado skins, an apple missing a few bites to pieces. Smaller food particles create greater surface area for the microorganisms to feed on, and ultimately, a more homogenous final product. Cutie clementine and Chiquita banana stickers peek out of the sludge. I continue to crunch eggshells and stab at the stubborn, fibrous coffee filters while Sammy sticks a thermometer into the belly of the pile.
Temperature is a good indication of the health and efficiency of a compost heap. The bacteria and fungi eating the particles can increase the temperature up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough to kill pathogens and weed seeds. Though the air temperature is less than 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the pile is up to 99, still a bit cooler than usual. Sammy speculates it’s due to the increased volume of food scraps she’s added in the last week, or the excess moisture from the snow.
“We have this makeshift pallet and plastic garbage bag thing to keep the snow off,” Sammy says, pulling at a scrap of gray plastic atop the wooden frame housing the pile. There are three compartments, each about 4X4X4 feet, separating ready-to-use compost, curing compost, and the freshest, most fragrant pile that we’ve been working with. Each pile will be rotated to make space to start a fresh pile for spring quarter. “We try to do one pile per quarter,” Sammy says, “but we’re kind of outgrowing our capacity.”
In 2010, a FacMan student intern initiated a program to collect food waste from the cafeteria and truck it to Lake Village Homestead Farm, 11 miles from campus, to feed to their pigs. “It was pretty successful and very easy to manage, except that it was not entirely legal,” Paul Manstrom, Asscociate Vice President of Facilities Management, said.
They realized this about a year after the program started when the Department of Agriculture came across the promotional video students had posted on YouTube. A few days later, “We had three people from the DA on campus nosing around,” Manstrom said.
There were two problems with the program: FacMan didn’t have a license to transport food waste, and it’s illegal to feed animal products to livestock. (Rob Townsend, Recycling Coordinator and truck driver at the time recalled picking out a chuck of ham, still wrapped in foil, from the pile he dumped for the pigs. “I remember thinking ‘this doesn’t seem quite right…’” Townsend said.) The Department of Agriculture shut the program down and FacMan and Dining Services had to reevaluate.
Another FacMan intern, Monica Cooper K ’13, created an on-campus composting program for living learning houses in 2012. She provided each house with a bucket to separate their food waste from the rest of their garbage. Vegetable and fruit scraps, grains, coffee grounds and eggshells could be deposited in these buckets – no meat or dairy products. Every Sunday, she picked up the buckets and left empty ones. She dumped the food scraps in the structure she built behind the living learning houses in the grove. Since the program has expanded to off-campus houses and coffee services on campus, FacMan built another structure to increase capacity.
Sammy takes a pitchfork to the pile, her long braid falling over her shoulder, sturdy tall frame bent in half. She pulls heaps off the top to mix in with the fresh scraps we’re about to add. Steam smelling of funky blue cheese rises from the depths. She explains the difficulty of getting the proportion of food waste, ‘brown matter’ (leaves, straw, or woodchips), and moisture. “Just trying to figure out what your compost recipe is takes a lot of work,” she says. “And when it’s not right it’s really obvious because it smells really bad.”
She continues pitchforking. Aerating, or ‘turning’, the pile increases the rate of decomposition, but too much oxygen will dry out the pile. Adequate moisture makes the nutrients in the organic matter available to the microorganisms. It’s a tricky balance, and the pressure’s on when an imbalance is so obvious and unpleasant to a passerby. The FacMan employees give her a hard time about the smell emitting from the Earth Tubs in the parking lot, a program she initiated in the spring of her sophomore year.
After research conducted through an independent study, Sammy and then-senior Alicia Pettys made a recommendation to the college on the best way to run an on-site composting program. They hoped to increase capacity to compost all pre and post-consumer food waste from the cafeteria.
As recommended, the college purchased two Earth Tubs from Green Mountain Technologies. The enclosed composting containers, about two times the size of a standard hot tub, power mix and aerate the food waste. According to the company’s website, they can shred and mix a ton or more of compost in 10-15 minutes.
“One of the tubs will take about three weeks worth of compost from the caf,” Manstrom said. “Then it takes two to three weeks to bake, then another four weeks to cure on the ground.”
Sammy has noticed that the majority of food waste on our campus is untouched food from the cafeteria kitchen. It’s a consistent challenge to provide meals for a varying number of students with varying tastes, and the tendency is to over-estimate so no one leaves the caf unsatisfied. That means a lot of perfectly edible food goes to waste. “One time I composted a whole bucket of just one rice dish,” Sammy said.
Other campuses in Michigan have student organizations dedicated to recovering and redistributing extra food from dining halls. At the University of Michigan, students have partnered with the national Food Recovery Network (FRN) to implement a food waste solution in five of their seven dining halls. FRN provides them with funding for freezers, the key appliance in food waste recovery. Cafeteria employees fill aluminum sheet pans with extra food from each meal. This food hasn’t gone out on the buffet in the dining hall; it could be an extra pan of lasagna, pot of soup, or platter of roasted vegetables. They slide the pans in the freezer for student volunteers to pick up the following day. Students take the pans of food to a local distribution organization, Food Gatherers, where it is weighed and distributed to one of 150 non-profits in Washtenaw County.
Though we’ve yet to devise a similar system on our campus, the composting program is an impactful, semi-solution.
The new composting program took a beating this winter; accumulated snow collapsed the tent that sheltered the tubs, and frigid temperatures inhibited the breakdown of the food waste. “I think we’ve got a couple more years to get it to run perfectly,” Manstrom said. The pulper – which ideally grinds the food and drains excess water – has hasn’t been functioning properly, so there’s been a slow start-up with the Earth Tubs this spring.
Dylan Polcyn’16, will be taking Sammy’s place in heading up the program next year. He plans to get more students involved through first-year forums and work to solidify a consistent system. “I want to make our presence known from the get go,” he said, “and really establish ourselves as a fixture on campus.”
Finished compost is available for campus community members. “Our idea was not to sell it,” Manstrom said, “but to provide compost for staff and neighbors to use on their gardens.” The first batch from the tubs was added to the soil in the landscaping around the Arcus Center during its construction last spring; a nice way to close the loop of the composting system.