With the introduction of the green bin in regions across Ontario, most of us have gotten used to composting around our house with little hassle or effort. But what about when we’re out, away from our own green bin, looking for a place to dump our apple cores and other lunchtime remnants? University campuses across Canada are finally getting around to introducing more environmentally minded ways of waste disposal. After hearing about a student-driven effort at the University of Waterloo, I decided to look into the unique ways Canadian universities are handling their organics.
It might seem as simple as placing the same type of green bins from our homes next to all of the garbage bins on campus, but evidently the process is much more complicated than we may think. Not many Canadian universities have implemented campus-wide programs.
By looking into the composting systems at a few different universities, I found that no school seems to compost in the same way. Some have had programs for years, while others are just getting started. An interesting divide is the universities that have private waste management companies handle the compost and those that choose to collect and process it on campus.
It is not too surprising that the University of Guelph (UoG) has been on the composting bandwagon for almost 10 years. A school with agricultural roots, UoG has implemented small-scale organics collection on campus using backyard-style composters. The university’s sustainability office employs a “compost coordinator” tasked with monitoring and maintaining the bins scattered around campus.
According to Gillian Maurice, current sustainability coordinator for UoG, the composting program began with a student initiative organized by the Guelph chapter of OPIRG. A student fills the job of compost coordinator during the fall and winter academic terms.
UoG stays true to its environmental and agriculture roots by collecting, processing and using the compost entirely on campus, rather than involving a third party. Current summer interim coordinator Paul Caruso says, in regards to the use of the processed compost, “the best is used for our on campus organic farm and anything that becomes contaminated with plastic or bits of garbage is used for clean fill on campus.”
Although running the operation entirely on campus is arguably the more earth friendly choice, there are drawbacks, particularly cost. Maurice says the university’s system is fairly small-scale, as building an on-site composter capable of handling all of the campus waste would cost the school upwards of one million dollars.
The idea of shipping the green bin waste to an off-site location to save cost has not received much support, so it is likely that UoG will stick with the small-scale operation for now in an effort to keep sustainability a top priority.
On the other end of the campus composting spectrum, Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) has had a campus-wide program since 2010, however the private company Waste Management collects the organics, which eventually end up at All Treat Farms.
The clear environmental downside to this type of collection is the trucks travelling to and from the campus, burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 emissions. The system is arguable less environmentally friendly, especially in comparison to UoG’s. However, the advantage is WLU is able to have a much larger scale collection program with 50 compost units across campus.
An impressive accomplishment on WLU’s campus is the total absence of stand-alone garbage bins in all public areas. There are now all-in-one waste centres (including organics, separated recycling, and garbage) wherever there is food served, eliminating the need for individuals to walk to different bins. This might seem trivial, but as a student myself, I can confirm that convenience is essential when food and its disposal are concerned.
According to WLU’s sustainability coordinator, Claire Bennett, the biggest challenge their organics program faces is education. She says they find the organics bins are not always being used to their full potential. Although Bennett says WLU is trying to combat this with increased awareness programs, arguably a key problem is the lack of student involvement. Engagement is likely the best way to educate students on the potential of organics.
Though both universities may have the same ultimate goal: operating a cross-campus composting program, they have each gone about it in completely different ways, both having positive and negative aspects. Though WLU has reached a 60 per cent waste diversion rate in just a few years, is the cost to the environment through transportation worth it? Would an on-campus composting facility even be possible at Laurier due to the restricted size of the campus? Does UoG’s on site processing make them more sustainable? Or is too much food waste still going to the landfill? It is ultimately up to each university to find an organics program that fits well on their campus.
The last campus-composting endeavor that caught my attention is one that is still in the planning stages, with a time frame for implementation unclear at this point. The University of Waterloo is known for innovative ideas, and they are sticking to their reputation even when it comes to food waste. The UW Composting Coalition (UWCC) is a completely student-driven project conceived in September 2012 by environment student and recent president of the Environment Student Society, Joshua Jodoin.
The program, if implemented, would be unique in that not only would organics be collected, processed and used on campus, it would all be operated by students, beginning with volunteers and eventually turning into a self-sustaining business operated by co-op students. “The whole vision of it is that it will be a service provided by environment students for the entire campus.” Last fall, the UWCC received nearly $15 000 in funding from the Waterloo Environment Student Endowment Fund (WESEF). The organizers spent four months compiling a funding proposal, business plans and securing equipment contracts.
Jodoin compared the UWCC plan to the organics disposal at WLU, which is fundamentally different, as it will not involve a private company and UW students will not be subjected to a fee (WLU students pay an extra $1 per year to run the program). “We want to keep things local – try to keep the waste on site and work with it on site, [with our plan] we wouldn’t have a carbon footprint,” said Jodoin. He compared his vision to the idea of the old-fashioned, backyard composter and to contrast, WLU’s program is like that of the regional green bin system.
Jodoin, who will graduate this June, says the administration has been supportive of the coalition, likely because it addresses an important issue and would relieve the administration of performing a waste audit (something they have not done, but are required to). UWCC secured the support of the dean of the Faculty of the Environment this past winter. With his impending graduation, Jodoin organized a succession plan to keep the program running. He hopes the UWCC will be tied into the Environment Student Society constitution, to ensure the program transitions smoothly from year to year. Currently, the primary responsibility has been placed in the hands of three 1st and 2nd year students, highly motivated to work on implementing the plan.
By now you might be wondering, why after all of the organizing, has the program still not been implemented? Jodoin says the UWCC has been on hiatus for the past few months while they wait for approval from the UW Plant Operations (plant ops). Essentially, the project is in the hands of the administration for now. “Students going to plant ops is a bad idea, they are not going to take you seriously,” Jodoin says, which is why the coalition first secured the support from the faculty of the environment, so the project could have a concrete administrative representative to handle the negotiations with plant ops. Yet it has been close to four months since plant ops was given the proposal and no progress has been made – a common problem with student projects on the UW campus.
It is obvious that much like curbside composting, on-campus programs have a long way to go. However it is also evident that there is not one single solution to campus organics. All post-secondary institutions must put in the effort to develop a program that fits the needs of their campus, whether driven by students or administration. Given the administrative barriers being faced at UW, it is clear that both staff and students must make organics disposal a priority in order to successfully commit to the green bin.
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