AU improves composting, hopes to reach zero-waste

As American University (AU) students filed back in for the start of the fall semester they noticed something new: a plethora of bright, orange bins.

This summer AU Green Eagles, a group of students who work to promote sustainability on campus through the AU Office of Sustainability, revamped the composting program on campus in hopes that more students would use the program properly.

AU’s composting program began in January 2013 as part of the large goal of having  zero waste on campus. The program was successful in reducing landfill waste on campus, but many students were not correctly using the bins, said former Green Eagle Katherine Sibel.

To avoid confusion about the new program, the Green Eagles and AU’s Office of Sustainability worked this summer to change the appearance of the composting bins. Changes included resizing the bins, color-coding them and improving the labeling.

Sibel is a junior at AU and was a Green Eagle for the past two years on campus. She recalled that when the program first began there was just one large composting bin. The original thought was that students would throw more trash in the larger bin, but that’s not what happened.

Over the summer the Green Eagles came together to brainstorm solutions.

“We were thinking that maybe if [trash bins] are all the same size then people would be more likely to throw it in the bin,” Sibel said.

The composting bins were changed so that they are now the same size and shape as every other bin. They also were color-coded. The bright orange bins can now be seen all over campus. The AU Office of Sustainability has made simple signs and placed them strategically near the bins to better inform students.

Despite the changes, all students are still not composting as much as they could be.

“As a student living in the residence halls, I don’t think it is going well because people are still pitching whole trash bags into the trash, whereas that could most likely all go to compost,” Sibel said.

Many of the problems revolve around the lack of education about composting. Helen Lee, zero-waste coordinator of Facilities Management at AU, said students need to be more aware of what materials can be composted.

“Organic waste and composting is a very new concept for people,” Lee said. “Just like recycling was a new concept a few decades ago, and now it’s more prevalent.”

If done correctly, composting could create a much more sustainable environment at AU. For example, right now all of the landscaping waste at AU is now sent to a composting site in Maryland, Lee said. All of that waste is then purchased back by AU to fertilize the arboretum gardens on campus.

For universities with arboretums, it has become common to have a composting system in place because they are both economical and environmentally friendly. Other arboretum universities, such as Duke University, have a similar composting program.

“There are a lot of students and staff demanding us to compost because they want to be directly involved in doing the right thing,” Lee said.

Composting could be simple at AU. Sibel explained that because of the university’s dedication to serving environmentally friendly products, most things sold on campus can be composted.

At AU, 40 to 45 percent of the trash is considered organic waste such as paper towels and excess food, and the other half can be recycled, Lee said. This only leaves 10 percent of waste that cannot go anywhere except for a landfill, such as plastic wrappers from vending machines.

AU does not monetarily benefit from composting. In fact, the university loses money on the process because the closest quality composting facility is in Delaware. The cost of transporting the waste there makes it $1 more expensive per ton than if the waste were sent to the landfill, Lee said. There are plans to begin shipping to a composting facility in Maryland in the near future.

Still, Lee said the environmental benefits to composting outweigh the monetary loss.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, composting benefits many areas of the environment and urban life. It reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, facilitates reforestation, and avoids methane production in landfills, among many other benefits.

And American University is not the only university to adopt a campus composting system; it’s slowly becoming more popular. In the last few years, many universities across the country are trying to achieve a zero-waste goal, including the University of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania, Lee said.

“Waste is something everyone can connect to,” Lee said. “Everyone throws away something at one point of their day.”2013-09-05 18.53.58

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