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Composting on Campus: The View from Boston University

Frontier Group summer intern Morgan Chrisman wrote this blog post. 

I still have the aluminum water bottle emblazoned with a “Sustainability@BU” logo that I received as a wide-eyed incoming freshman at summer orientation for my first year at Boston University. I remember being curious about what a university this large could be doing to be more sustainable, and wondering what my role in this push for sustainability could be.

Upon arrival to campus in the fall of my freshman year, I saw the multitude of ways BU made a concerted effort to be a cleaner and greener institution. Now, entering my final year at BU, and after a summer as an intern with Frontier Group, I reflect on the ways sustainability has been integrated into my daily life on campus, and about the ways in which large-scale sustainability could, and should, be implemented on college campuses and in cities across the country. With the recent release of Frontier Group’s Composting in America report, I decided to take a deeper look into the ways my university helps divert organic waste from landfills, its other sustainability efforts, and the ways in which I personally can help make my university greener.

In the U.S., we have a massive organic waste problem. In fact, almost 1/3 of the material that is landfilled or incinerated is food waste or yard trimmings – organic waste that could be composted. This waste, if composted, would both reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the methane leaking from landfills and reintroduce vital nutrients to the soil. This means that properly caring for our organic waste can help fight global warming and increase food security.

Universities have a unique challenge regarding composting, simply because of the massive volume of people these institutions have to feed. Luckily, there are ways to reduce waste. At Boston University’s dining facilities, such as the student union, employees and students sort their waste into bins for compost, recycling, and the landfill. Shadow boxes above the waste receptacles show students the kind of waste that can be put into each bin and make it easy for students to sort their waste on-site.

While I’ve always appreciated the ease with which I can responsibly dispose of my organic waste at BU, I’ve wondered what actually happens after my waste leaves BU’s urban campus. Turns out, it follows quite an extensive path. First, the waste is brought to a Centralized Organic Recycling, or CORe, facility. Here, the waste is blended into the consistency of a thick milkshake and any items that cannot be blended are sorted out of the concoction. From there, the “milkshake” is sent to an anaerobic digestion facility where the waste is digested to create biogas, which can be used to make electricity, and the remaining organic waste can be used to return nutrients to our soil, helping to close the waste loop.

Though I wish I could partake in at-home composting, which provides even more benefits than this “industrialized composting,” this process provides an alternative for big institutions like universities that have difficulty sustainably dealing with their organic waste, and could be implemented in universities around the country.

I’m lucky to go to a school that is conscious of its environmental impacts, even if it isn’t perfect all the time. I’m proud that my university is working to reduce its waste at the source through responsible, small-batch food preparation, incentivizing the use of reusable containers in dining facilities, and rejecting the use of plastic straws and Styrofoam containers. Together with individual actions that students can take – like bringing a reusable water bottle, walking to class or taking public transport, choosing e-books, and taking smaller portions at the dining hall – initiatives like campus composting can help to turn colleges and universities into sustainability leaders. 

Photo credit: Morgan Chrisman

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