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College composting expands to residence halls, Skoglund facility

More than 15 years after initial efforts to establish a lasting composting program at St. Olaf, the on-campus composting initiative will expand to 11 additional buildings in the New Year.

The College renewed its contract with the waste hauling company, Waste Management (WM), in late October. The new contract will allow waste produced in all 10 dormitories and the Tostrud Center for Recreation to be composted rather than sent to a landfill. This will expand the existing composting initiative, which has allowed for the composting of waste produced in Stav Hall, Rolvaag Memorial Library, Boe Chapel and Buntrock Commons in recent months.

Industrial compost bins will gradually be placed behind each building beginning in January 2019, Assistant Director of Facilities Steve Rassmussen said. WM will haul the organic material to the Mulch Store, an industrial composting facility in Rosemount, Minn.

“With the expansion, it will be more of a collaborative effort with the Environmental Coalition group, Waste Management and myself to provide the education and training in order to achieve the goal,” Rassmussen said. “As we expand we’re going to have an increase of custodial staff that are involved with this process. It’s going to require more training, I believe.”

The Environmental Coalition (EC), a student organization dedicated to promoting collaborative environmental action, played an integral role in the composting expansion that began in fall of 2017. Rassmussen said that EC members were largely responsible for the initiative’s execution.

“[EC] provided all the statistics that showed that we could make a very big difference in how we’re doing things here at St. Olaf,” Rassmussen said. “So far it’s been very successful.”

For many years, St. Olaf facilities used an on-site composting machine to process  the organic material produced in the campus cafeteria, Stav Hall. Facilities retired that machine in 2017 and began shipping material to the Mulch Store. The former on-site machine was not large enough to handle waste from other areas of campus, EC Co-Chair Matthew Douglas-May ’19 said.

“With that, our capacity cap was gone, so we could expand composting,”  Douglas-May said. “We decided to start with a pilot program in Buntrock because there was already a compost compactor under Stav Hall.”

EC implemented a Buntrock Commons composting pilot program in January 2018. The program required extensive student research and later allowed the Coalition to analyze the success of the expansion, Douglas-May said. 

EC then facilitated another expansion to Rolvaag and Boe Chapel during the spring semester.

“Waste audits enabled us to measure our waste before we implemented to see how much was compostable in the first place,” Douglas-May said. “We also got to see how bad we were at recycling and things like that.”

Four waste audits that EC did demonstrated between 57 and 73 percent of all waste was compostable but had not been sorted correctly. This demonstrated the St. Olaf community could potentially divert a large margin of waste from landfills to the compost.

EC also found that the improper waste sorting was contaminating 66 percent of recyclable material in the library. After the Coalition put up signs indicating how to properly sort waste, however, recycling contamination decreased from 66 to 36 percent. In Buntrock, recycling contamination decreased from 33 to 25 percent.

EC Organizer Addie Poore ’21 said it is important to note that, essentially, “all food waste is compostable,” but students need to pay attention to where they are disposing of certain materials. The quality of waste can be compromised if it is poorly sorted, Poore said. 

“The importance of education is that when you have single-stream recycling, compost and trash bins around campus, if there isn’t education, it won’t be sorted right, and we run the risk of being rejected by the Mulch Store,” Douglas-May said. “They could say ‘your compost is so contaminated that we can’t accept it anymore.’”

For this reason, since implementation, EC has focused on educational campaigns that aim to ease the trash-sorting process for the St. Olaf community. 

“Our big job was to design the entire education project and bin layout and pretty much everything except the custodial operation of things,” Douglas-May said. “Signage was another huge thing. We researched and found a model that few, easy-to-read words and pictures are the most effective.”

As a result of the expansion and education initiative, compost diversion rates increased from 19 to 42 percent of all waste where new compost bins were placed, according to EC data. The Boe and Rolvaag expansions were equally successful – compost diversion rates increased from 0 to 43 percent of all waste where compost bins were placed.

Poore emphasized that composting will transition St. Olaf waste from inhabiting a “linear model” to one based on reuse.

“Landfill prices have grown consistently since 2000, so it’s going to cost more and more in the future to landfill waste,” Douglas-May said. “Learning how to sort your waste at St. Olaf will make you a steward of the environment into the future.”

Student workers could be incorporated into composting execution and education projects in coming years, Rasmussen said. Moving forward, EC also hopes the College will establish a formal education program to ensure the sustainability of composting on campus.

 “That takes more than just putting up some signs,” Douglas-May said. “I’m hoping in the future we’ll have either established compost dorm ambassadors who will be in charge of making sure signs are up, or ideally, we would have a paid student position that would be in charge of education.”

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