Graduate students create campaign for compost

March 2, 2018

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 20 percent of all waste in landfills is compostable, totaling almost 35 million tons a year of food waste that emits methane gases in landfills. While Brandeis composts food waste in the Sherman and Usdan dining halls and Kutz Bakery, academic buildings and residence halls only offer recycling and trash bins for students to dispose of the snacks they couldn’t quite finish.

When the Environmental Justice Working Group (EJWG) at The Heller School of Social Policy and Management began brainstorming projects to take on, integrating a compost system into the graduate school was a priority. Co-leaders of the Working Group Meredith Beaton Marx, Mitali Pinto and Marissa Rosen, graduate students at Heller, introduced composting to the community by way of a campaign that allows students to compost their food waste in conveniently placed bins in the academic building.

The Brandeis Sustainability Fund granted the EJWG $500 for the project, which the group has used to purchase bins, compostable liners and a compost pickup site outside of Heller’s main building. To create an effective plan, EJWG consulted Mary Fischer, Brandeis’ Manager of Sustainability Projects, who suggested they run a pilot program to collect data on the efficacy of introducing two compost bins in student frequented areas.

“Mary [Fischer] at the Sustainability office was extremely helpful,” Marx said. “She really cares about what she’s doing, and really loves it when students are wanting to make this campus more green, so I think she was excited about the project.”

The group expected the pilot plan to run two weeks, but decided to extend it for an additional two weeks to collect data after the initial excitement about the program reduced. Heller students that volunteered as “Compost Ambassadors” helped with the process of getting the compostable waste from the students to Black Earth Composting, a pick-up composting service Brandeis has recently partnered with to dispose of compostable waste, and marketed the campaign to Heller students, staff and faculty through emails, signs and in-class explanations.

“What we had to do is get some bins, let people know that we wanted to collect some compost, measure the bins at the end of each day, see how much we can compost here at Heller and also pay attention to how much people can comply with composting and if they understand what to put in each bucket,” Marx said. During the pilot program, the pickup point for Black Earth Compost was outside the Faculty Club, so the students transported the bins back and forth after weighing the waste.

The data from the pilot report showed that as the program progressed, the amount of composted waste increased. While there were a few errors, such as students putting non-compostable Starbucks coffee cups in the bins, the data also reflected the posters that detailed what waste could be composted were effective in helping students sort their waste correctly.

After the successful pilot run in which they collected a total of 512.3 pounds at an average of 25.6 pounds a day, leaders of the working group drafted a report with their findings. The report stated the group’s purpose as an effort “to increase awareness around the importance of composting, while diverting a significant amount of food scraps from the landfill at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, which maintains a social change mission and core value of environmental sustainability.”

Composting is the process or turning organic waste into a rich soil additive, cutting down on food waste, saving water and keeping the waste out of landfills that would cause it to emit CO2 and methane gases. By using an external composting service, students can compost meat waste as well as vegetable and fruit waste. Additional compostable items include wooden coffee stirrers and paper towels, items that college students use frequently.

“We really felt that composting is a practice that goes along with the mission of Heller,” Marx said. “With Heller being a social policy school with a social justice mission and having an environmental sustainability focus, we should be practicing what we’re learning about and what we’re learning to do in the development field.”

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