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WKU composting food waste from Fresh Food Company

Turning food waste into fertilizer is one of the ways WKU is demonstrating sustainability.

In collaboration between Dining Services; Department of Facilities Management; Planning, Design and Construction; the Office of Sustainability; and the Baker Arboretum, a pre and post consumer food waste collection system was designed into the Downing Student Union renovation. (WKU photo by Bryan Lemon)

In collaboration between Dining Services; Department of Facilities Management; Planning, Design and Construction; the Office of Sustainability; and the Baker Arboretum, a pre and post consumer food waste collection system was designed into the Downing Student Union renovation. (WKU photo by Bryan Lemon)

The renovation of Fresh Food Company in the Downing Student Union provided a unique opportunity to implement food composting from the dining hall.

In collaboration between Dining Services; Department of Facilities Management; Planning, Design and Construction; the Office of Sustainability; and the Baker Arboretum, a pre and post consumer food waste collection system was designed into the DSU renovation.

The system allows for all preparation food waste from the kitchen, as well as food waste left on diners’ plates, to be placed into a pulper/extractor, a machine that breaks the waste into small pieces and extracts much of the water. The pulped food waste is then carried through plumbing to a collection bin that is located near the loading dock. It is delivered by Scott Waste, the University’s waste and recycling service, to the Baker Arboretum where it is incorporated with wood chips to create rich compost that will be mixed with soil to create new planting beds.

“Composting food waste is a complicated initiative, and it was a challenge to fit all the necessary pieces together,” WKU Sustainability Coordinator Christian Ryan said. “We knew that it would be a learning process, but everyone involved is determined to see it succeed. We tested the system last fall, made some improvements, and restarted for the spring semester. Today it’s running beautifully.”

Four tons of campus dining hall food waste has been diverted from the landfill since February, and Ryan estimates they will compost nearly 11 tons of food waste a year. It usually takes six to eight weeks to turn the waste into usable compost.

“We currently have hot compost cooking at Baker Arboretum from the food waste stream,” said Martin Stone, WKU Leichhardt Professor of Horticulture and Director of the Baker Arboretum. “We are excited about our partnership with the Office of Sustainability. We have a need for the finished product and are happy each time a truck makes a delivery.”

Vice President of Campus Services and Facilities John Osborne championed the project, which is one of few university or college food composting initiatives in existence. “Diverting food waste from our waste stream is a basic but significant sustainability practice we want to model at WKU,” he said. “We aspire to be an example of a successful program that others can learn from.”

Planning for the initiative began more than one year ago, and required much research and collaboration between stakeholders to work out all the details.

“The actual pulping and liquid extracting machinery is made by Somat Co., but we did have to do some customizing to fit our situation – primarily to carry the food waste down one story to the loading dock,” Ryan said. “Also, we had to do some retrofitting in the dish room to work for trough sink as opposed to single sink.”

The collection bin was custom-made to hold food waste. Campus Services Manager Joshua Twardowski worked with Division 5 Fabricators Inc. in Russellville to design the collection bin. Downing Student Union Project Manager Dan Chaney worked with project engineers to design and install a system that carries the food waste from the dish-room one floor down to the loading dock where the collection bin is located.

Ryan said they looked at systems at several universities while planning the DSU system.

“The biggest thing I learned from my research is that its impossible to do without all of the elements in place – a way to collect at the source, a way to store it, transportation (a significant barrier), and a site to take it where it can be finished,” she said. “Few campuses have been able to put all the pieces together successfully, as you can imagine. We have all the pieces in place and I think our system is absolutely one that can be emulated.”

One change that students may have noticed was the removal of plastic straws from the Fresh Food dining hall. This change was necessary to eliminate plastic contamination in the food waste, Ryan said.

“Dining Services staff have embraced the new system and have been very willing to work through details such as this to ensure that the initiative is successful,” she said.

Contact: Christian Ryan, (270) 745-2508.

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