Effort to reduce food waste at MU leads to compost program

Most college students going through the fruit line at the dining hall, or even those cooking in the kitchen, probably aren’t thinking about what happened to the top of the pineapple. Even when considering food waste, many would just consider what they leave on their plate, but not the food wasted in the preparation of the meal.

Almost 9 percent of food is wasted by students at the University of Missouri. This means that $362,640 million is wasted yearly. However, in comparison to the U.S., MU students are doing well. Nearly 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted yearly, which is the equivalent of $165 billion each year.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 97 percent of wasted food ends up in landfills. That’s 33 million tons of food. As overwhelming as that sounds, it gets worse. The food waste in landfills breaks down anaerobically, which is without air. This means the decomposing food creates methane, which has a greater impact than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. The emission from carbon dioxide at MU equals 66,140 kilograms, according to MU Campus Dining Services, which is the same as driving from Columbia to Washington, D.C., and back 42 times.

Members of the MU campus community are taking an active role in helping to solve this waste issue. Not only are signs posted in the dining halls showing food waste, students are advised to ask for samples before wasting a whole plate.

“Typically when I go to eat, I try not to overload a plate, so if I am still hungry afterwards I can go and get more food,” said Ellie Cherryhomes, MU junior and Mark Twain Residence Hall’s Sustainability Leader. “It’s like if you go to a grocery store on an empty stomach, you always get more than you should. So if you approach the dining hall like that every day, you’re going to create waste.”

In November of 2011, MU initiated a program to create compost using waste from the dining halls and material from the MU equine farm.

“They [MU Dining Hall Services] actually recorded that about a quarter pound of food every meal got thrown away, and that resulted in 250 tons of food per year that goes to the landfill,” said Tim Reinbott, assistant director of the MU Ag Experiment Station. “So that’s why we started this compost system so that we could take that food waste and make compost out of it by using another byproduct that we had at the horse farm [South Farm Research Center].”

Reinbott worked as Bradford Research Center’s superintendent for many years and held that position when the composting program began.

Students collect the waste set aside by dining hall staff from the dining halls. Andrew Biggs, current superintendent of Bradford Research Center, gives the examples of pineapple tops and apple cores as food collected. The food set aside is transported to Bradford Research Center three times a week, where students place the material into a composting facility.

“The nature of compost is really a living organism,” Biggs said. “It requires the right carbon to nitrogen ratio to be a good usable product in the end.”

The food waste starts out at a 20-1 ration of carbon to nitrogen, but it needs to be at 30-1 to be useful. The food waste is then mixed with material from the MU equine farm, which has a ratio of 40-to-1. By mixing the two products together, the correct carbon to nitrogen ratio is achieved, Biggs explained. Creating the compost is a process that can take up to year if it’s just piled up, or as little as six weeks when it is turned and worked with more frequently.

The compost created at Bradford Research Center is then used at the facility for its fields, as well as at the Jefferson Farm and Garden.

“The biggest hurdle we are facing in our system currently is finding a good place to utilize all this material that we’re generating,” Biggs said.

Reinbott’s original vision for the program was to sell the compost. However, a variety of obstacles prevented that from happening.