St. Olaf College, MN "The College Composter"

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Type: Policy

Status: Adopted in 2004

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At St. Olaf and elsewhere, we hope the food we eat helps us to do good work in the world. And now we hope the food we don't eat also does good work in the world.

We consume a lot of food at St. Olaf-about 80,000 meals a week. A few cynical students think the food is garbage even before they eat it. But all of them agree it's garbage when they're done. On the average, we generate about 700 pounds of food waste every day, including the scraps trimmed from food in preparation. That's not bad. If 2650 students eat 2.5 meals a day (a rough estimate), that would be prep and plate waste of 1.7 ounces per student per meal.

When we designed Buntrock Commons in the late Nineties, we planned the food service as a resource flow from farm to fork to fertilizer. When students deposit their trays on the carousel after meals, the kitchen staff slides all the leftover food into a pulper that extracts water from the waste. The result is a slurpy essence de garbage, easy to handle and easy to compost.

Right now, this garbage goes to a landfill on Highway 3, where it takes up space. Eventually the food waste will decay, but it's mixed with metal and plastics and chemicals in the landfill, so it won't return to the food cycle. Starting in January, however, our food waste will be food for the flora of our campus and farmlands.

In early 2004, members of the Environmental Coalition collected and weighed all the cafeteria waste for a week. Shortly after, the college purchased an in-vessel composter from Wright Environmental Management. When it's installed on land just south of North Avenue, it will handle up to a ton of waste a day. The composter combines food waste (including dairy products and meat) with woodchips, pizza boxes and other paper products, converting this recipe to fertilizer in a period of 14 days. The composter may reduce our garbage disposal costs. And all of the compost will be used on the college's flower beds and agricultural fields.

Our composter is good for us and good for the natural communities of the college, but it's also good for the human community of Northfield, because we can reduce pressure on the public sewage treatment plant. It's no longer a situation of "garbage in, garbage out." With a composter, it's "garbage in, compost out."