Composting on hiatus


Bessie is still going to get some new bedding — she will just have to wait until next semester.
The University of Idaho Food and Farm composting program, which turns student food waste into bedding for UI dairy cows, is shutting down for renovations April 2.
Adria Mead, the Sustainability Center’s student director, said the decision was made to minimize the amount of potential compost lost by closing down during the summer when food waste production is at its lowest point.
“It’s something that we just recently discovered was going to be a lot easier to do if we stop collecting compost and then just get that site ready and prepared and open up again in the fall,” she said.
Donations from the project’s stakeholders — Sodexo, the Sustainability Center, ASUI,  the Palouse Research Extension and Education Center and Environmental Science Department — will purchase a range of new composting equipment to be implemented by Aug. 1, in time for the students to return in the fall.
A one-time donation from ASUI of $22,000 will purchase a new conveyor belt and mixer and a $3,000-contribution from campus dining for ecological blocks will create new containers for the compost. This money is in addition to the more than $100,000 donated to the project since its inception in 2010 by the Sustainability Center, PREEC and Environmental Science Department.
Since the renewal of UI’s food service contract with Sodexo three years ago, which stipulated campus dining had to reduce its waste by 90 percent. 111 tons of pre- and post-consumer food waste has been diverted from the landfill by the Food and Farm program.
What started as a pile at the composting site at the UI dairy farm behind WinCo has encountered some physical constraints, including just the sheer incoming volume of waste.
In order to produce usable bedding, the compost must be turned over regularly, which has been difficult with the increasing volume and sub-par equipment. The new system will help increase the rate of decomposition, turning food into compost more quickly, PREEC Superintendant Donn Thill said.
The process begins when the food waste collected at the Idaho Commons and Bob’s Place is stored in large three-walled containers called “bays,” which are constructed using the new eco-blocks.
“Generally if the process is working it’s 4-6 months — turning it into primary compost,” he said. “After that phase, it is taken out of the bay (and goes) through a secondary composting.”
This is where the new equipment comes in. The new mixer will combine food waste with manure to accelerate the process, and the combination then heads down the new conveyor belt and through a screen, which removes materials that won’t biodegrade as quickly. Then it’s back into another bay for 4-6 months until it becomes a product like the one you buy at Home Depot.
Another issue for the program is silverware.
“The compostable flatware — spoons and forks — don’t actually compost, so one of our pieces of equipment is a screen to get the last levels of contamination out or things that haven’t composted,” former Sustainability Center Director Darin Saul, who helped start Food and Farm, said. “We are just pulling things like that out now.”
On Till’s end, the troublesome flatware has hampered their efforts to make campus a more sustainable system.
“Right now the final product, because of the forks, spoons and knives, is not really usable for us,” he said.
The Sustainability Center hopes finding a potential alternative can come from a student body that has supported the project from the beginning.
“The center is hoping to have maybe a student grant (for) someone to buy several different types of compostable forks or silverware and see what would (be) most effective and do it on a smaller scale before campus dining commits to buying,” she said.
The Food and Farm program has been predicated on this kind of involvement since the beginning.
“This is something the students have identified, students have been the leadership in, students have largely funded it and student labor has been largely what made the project happen at this point,” Saul said. “This is a good example of student engagement.”
Dylan Brown can be reached at

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