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Expanded Composting at Norris Center

In April 2019, student organization Northwestern University Real Food (NURF) piloted expanded food waste compost collections to diners on the ground floor of Norris University Center. While food waste composting is part of all campus dining operations, most collections take place in prep, serving, and dish room areas. With the help of Northwestern Dining, the Norris staff, and sustainNU, NURF was able to compost 400 pounds of waste from diners over a 4-week period, avoiding disposal in a landfill.

It is critical that compost collections are clean, with no contamination from unacceptable items. This makes front-of-the-house, or customer-facing, collections challenging in public spaces. To mitigate this concern, student volunteers supervised waste stations, educating patrons on proper recycling, compost, and landfill disposal during the first two weeks of the pilot. The new environmental effort was met with great enthusiasm from students, staff, and Norris visitors.

After the initial two-week trial, compost bins were left unsupervised for one week, and restrictive lids were introduced to the compost bins the fourth week. During the unstaffed week, less than 30% of the materials collected were able to be composted due to contamination. When the lid was introduced, collections were lower, but over 70% was free of contaminants and able to be composted.

The 2018 Integrated Solid Waste Management plan reported 19 percent of waste at Norris is food scraps. The introduction of composting to Norris will help Northwestern achieve its goal of a landfill diversion rate of 50 percent by 2020.

This pilot project demonstrated the need for continued education and engagement of our campus community. Individuals need to take accountability for sorting their waste. Even one piece of contamination (plastic utensils, straws, or receipts being most common) can prevent food waste from being composted.

Food waste is often overlooked as a significant component of human impact on our planet. In the United States, 30-40% of our food supply is wasted annually. The resources that go into growing, transporting, and then disposing food is a burden on the environment. While we should look to reduce food waste by purchasing and using food wisely, composting is one way to reduce the disposal impact. Composting food waste creates nutrient-rich soil that can be used to grow new plants.

NURF continues to work to improve the purity and amount of the compost collected. Additionally, the group hopes to expand the composting program to Greek housing and other dining locations.