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Contamination disrupting campus composting

Contamination disrupting campus composting

Another step towards being environmentally friendly on the UW-Eau Claire campus was brought into effect in 2009 when composting bins were placed around campus dining halls and Davies Center, but contamination with non-organic materials has been an issue from the start.

Material that can be composted includes food and other biodegradable materials, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

“We do a lot of composting in the cafeterias, behind the scenes, because students seem to want to contaminate the composting,” Christian Wise, general manager and executive chef of Blugold
Dining said.

UW-Eau Claire sends approximately 14,400 lbs. of compostable material every week from Davies Center and Hilltop Center, Wise said. It is sent to Veolia Environmental Services, the waste management company that handles Eau Claire trash, recycling and composting.

Back of house composting, material controlled by Eau Claire dining staff, adds up to 85 percent of Eau Claire composted material.  The remaining 15 percent  is made of front of house composting which is material composted by students, faculty and other persons on campus. This is where the contamination occurs.

Chris Buckley, assistant director for operations, said Veolia would prefer if the university didn’t utilize front of the house composting, but Eau Claire plans to continue using compost bins and hope people will realize what a positive thing composting is.

Operations Manager at Veolia Gary Albee, said the contamination has been a big issue from the start, but it hasn’t caused any tension with the university.

“We don’t grind our materials but if we did it would be really bad because we wouldn’t be able to get it out,” Albee said. “It’s something we might be doing in the future and that’s when we will really crack down. Right now it doesn’t affect us because we screen it out.”

When the program was first launched, Blugold Dining attempted to promote composting and educated students on proper technique but nothing seemed to work, Wise said.

“We have tried to do education regarding the composting bins,” Wise said. “We’ve put different signs up showing people what’s compostable and what’s not and posted different people to try to talk with people, but it just doesn’t seem like we’re hugely successful there.”

Buckley said the university currently has no plans to educate students on the proper way to compost because they don’t have the resources.

But Ben Ponkratz, director of the Student Office of Sustainability, said SOS is attempting to launch an idea called compost goalie to educate students on proper ways to compost starting this spring semester.

“There is such a great visibility aspect of having those bins out there,” Ponkratz said, “Students can feel like they are participating in something environmentally friendly.”

SOS is planning to place a peer advisor, who is knowledgeable and trained on proper composting techniques, next to the compost bins, to hopefully leave an impact on students on the way to compost correctly.

Sophomore Emily Graham said the campus should promote composting because most people aren’t going to compost on their own off campus and don’t always know the correct way to compost.

“I always recycle but I didn’t know that the green bins were even for composting,” Graham said. “They aren’t very clear about what can be composted.”

Ponkratz said the purpose of the compost goalie is to educate and motivate the students.

“I think that when you are throwing something away, it doesn’t take much motivation to separate (the trash) and the purpose of these programs is for education,” Ponkratz said.  “If students see that people do care enough to stand out there and educate people, there is no way they will just ignore that.  It’s all about behavior change. The first step is getting students aware.”

Sustainability Fellow and faculty advisor of SOS James Boulter made the point that this is not just an Eau Claire problem but a universal problem. SOS hopes this program will start to change student and faculty habits when it comes to how they dispose of compostable waste.

“It’s really a much larger piece that addresses all of society, not just the folks on UWEC campus,” Boulter said. “As a people we are kind of lazy about these kinds of things.  We’ve got to try to correct people’s habits and educate people’s understanding on how to do these things. This (program will be) actually catching people in the act of throwing the wrong thing in the composting or throwing the composting into the garbage.”

The hope is projects like the composing goalie will help composting catch on and it will become mainstream, the way recycling has.

“A lot of students are coming from places where composting is a completely foreign concept,” Wise said.  “My hope is that overtime once everyone gets used to composting and everybody gets used to the procedure, it will become second nature.”

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