To compost or not to compost? That is the question some people ask themselves before throwing out their waste.
At Penn State, composting efforts start in the dining halls and end in the facilities of the Organic Materials Processing and Education Center, where the compost then makes it way back onto campus grounds, the Student Farm and into the community.
Ryan McCaughey, manager of grounds and equipment who works closely with the composting process, said the solid waste management department collects food waste from the dining halls and waste from office composting bins, which then gets tossed with leaves and switchgrass from the Arboretum to make the body of the compost.
Before the compost goes anywhere, McCaughey said the rows of compost must undergo a screening process to eliminate the larger pieces of non compostable material, which is necessary to lessen the contamination of composting bins on campus.
“Office composting can be messy because it’s hard to tell what’s compostable and what’s not,” McCaughey said.
According to McCaughey, most of the confusion comes from the different types of plastic, which Lydia Vandenbergh, associate director of employee engagement and education for Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, reiterated.
“Most students think coffee cups are paper, and they’re actually a combination of paper and plastic,” Vandenbergh said. “They wouldn’t break down, so coffee cups go in the trash.”
Vandenbergh said other items like condiment packages inside an otherwise compostable food waste container also contaminate the compost — and “it will take a little effort” on behalf of students and faculty to separate their waste.
With the contamination of the compost, McCaughey said the value of the finished product decreases both in terms of money and nutrients.
“You’d see the finished compost and you could see bits of plastic,” McCaughey said. “[When] it would rain, all the compost would settle, but the plastic stuff would float to the top.”
To combat the contamination issue at the composting site, McCaughey said the employees at OMPEC have now started separating the office compost from food waste.
This separation of compostable items and food waste is something Anna Sostarecz, the Food Services sustainability coordinator, said Food Services has been practicing in the kitchens for a long time.
Furthering the food waste reduction efforts, Sostarecz said Penn State Food Services implemented a program called LeanPath in January 2019.
The program weighs the food waste and keeps track of what type of waste goes into the bins, which according to Sostarecz, “allows [them] to see patterns where [they] may be wasting repeatedly [so they can] then seek those out and eliminate them.”
Sostarecz said while composting helps eliminate food waste by putting the nutrients back into the ground to grow more food, reducing food waste in the first place is more of the issue.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” Sostarecz said. “People think about that as a triangle. I would like to encourage [them] to think of it as an upside down pyramid, a waste hierarchy with ‘reduce’ at the top, then ‘reuse,’ then ‘recycle.’”
Vandenbergh said to initially reduce food waste, students should be cognizant of how much they buy from the grocery store and keep track of their leftovers. She said she keeps a list of leftovers on the refrigerator so she knows what has to be eaten first before picking through the other food.
McCaughey said he doesn’t want students to overcomplicate throwing out their waste, saying compost is food waste. Anything that can’t be recycled like plastic bottles and jugs gets thrown in the trash.
“If you’re not sure, don’t guess.”