After more than a year of sending its compostable waste to landfills, AU will begin composting again this April after renewing its contract with the Prince George’s County composting facility in Maryland.
The facility suspended its contract with the University in November 2014 after receiving contaminated waste. The composting facility was only a pilot program and did not have the technology needed to separate plastic, glass or other contaminants mixed into the composting samples sent to them, according to AU Zero Waste Coordinator Helen Lee.
As the only commercial food waste composting facility left in the Metro area, PG County struggled to keep up with demand, becoming very selective and adopting a zero waste policy, meaning that if the school left any non-compostable items in the bin, PG County would reject them from the program. This strict policy left the school with no option but to send food waste to the landfills.
However, the PG County composting program has grown, and the University has been working to reduce contamination by educating students and staff on the topic. PG County will be ready to work with AU again, as long as it complies with the zero waste policy, Lee said.
Since PG County can still easily refuse to work with the University if any contaminants are found in the compostable waste that is to be sent to them later this semester, students and staff must be extremely careful about where each item is going in the weeks ahead, Lee said.
“If our bins are not clean, they will reject it. It’s on every single person on campus, not just on Housekeeping and Dining. There is no magic fairy sorting the waste,” Lee said. “Everything in the orange bins all over campus will be sent to be composted. Every single person’s decision on where they are throwing each item matters.”
Lee trained AU dining staff during the fall 2015 semester in an effort to make composting easier for them. She worked with Sustainability Chef Kyle Johnson from the Terrace Dining Room on correctly sorting TDR waste and took the managers of other on-campus dining vendors on a tour of the area where the dumpsters are located so that they know how to avoid contamination.
“Our goal is to compost 100 percent of the organic waste from TDR and the Davenport Coffee Lounge by this spring and have a really clean stream of waste going to the composting facility,” Lee said.
Since Lee started in her position four years ago, many changes have been implemented to create a more environmentally friendly campus, including redesigning all of the waste bins and introducing the orange compost bins in all the buildings. Prior to her arrival, the University only had a recycling program, she said.
Lee said she is trying to increase awareness about composting by posting updates through the Zero Waste program’s social media pages on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Her plan is to keep the Zero Waste initiative section on the University website updated as well and to reach more students and encourage them to reuse. Lee said she is grateful for all of the support the Zero Waste program has received and hopes to see the trend continue.
“We have been getting support from many departments,” Lee said. “We have been asked by environmental faculty to come speak in their classes and have received tremendous support from athletics by them hosting a Zero Waste themed basketball game in February, and Housing and Dining’s help with move-in and move-out waste such as furniture and electronics.”
The AU Student Zero Waste Club has spearheaded the composting initiative at the student level. The club is currently focusing on student outreach and education and has been working alongside the Office of Sustainability in informing students on sorting waste, according to Celange Beck, a senior in the Kogod School of Business and vice president of the club.
“We are working really hard on educating faculty and staff, and we are trying to do the student component on how to sort correctly so that way we can send perfect compost to the facility,” Beck said.
The organization is made up of three committees that are working on different service activities on campus, including collecting donations of reusable dorm items at the end of the spring semester and selling them back at a reduced price when school starts again, according to Beck. They are currently trying to find a space on campus to accommodate all donations and expand the program by making it open to graduate students and staff. The club is also in the process of creating an event guidebook with suggestions on how to incorporate the zero waste idea into planning events, Beck said.
“It’s a little bit easier to reach staff here because we can have formal training sessions with them,” Beck said. “With students it’s a little bit trickier, but we try to target during times like summer orientation. We are trying to integrate training though the event guidebook so that it can be more direct than speaking to people in a crowd and then hoping that they follow through at events.”
Beck hopes that students realize the overall societal impact of composting and sorting waste correctly.
“Sorting your waste has a really large impact that people don’t assess immediately, but landfills and incinerators are placed in impoverished areas, and there are huge environmental justice issues related to waste,” Beck said. “When you sort your waste and send it to recycling facilities and composting facilities, that really helps reduce the amount of environmental justice issues along with other environmental quality issues associated with landfills and incinerators. It’s a big thing you are doing by just sorting waste.”
At the moment, the AU Student Zero Waste Club wants to work on having all of the organic waste from MGC be free of contamination, and then have residence halls and other areas of campus follow in the same direction.
“Until we get perfect non-contaminated organic waste, we cannot send it to the compost facility because they will not accept it,” Beck said. “We cannot put ourselves at the risk of losing the contract for a second time. Unfortunately, the composting facilities in the area have been shutting down, and this is our last option. We’ve got to be perfect this time.”
This article was originally published in American University's student newspaper, The Eagle, on Feb. 4, 2016.