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To Compost or not to Compost

May 2019

Composting, the transformation of organic material (plant matter) through decomposition into a soil-like material, has been an integral part of HFS and UW sustainability efforts for more than a decade. Working with business and industry, HFS actually had a hand in developing compostable materials—from the to-go-ware to the Coca Cola and Starbucks cup and lids.

Throughout the residence halls and the dining areas, compost bins stand at the ready next to recycling and waste bins. Only a moment of reflection is needed when deciding which items go where. And yet, a surprisingly high percentage of compost items are ending up in the waste bins, this according to a major waste characterization study of 2018 by UW Recycling.

Composting pizza boxes

The study’s objective was to provide estimates of garbage, recycling, and compostable material generated on the UW campus. The data is being used to evaluate current programs, identify goals, and support the design of diversion programs to achieve set goals. UW previously conducted waste stream analyses in 1989 and 2003. The 2018 study followed the same methodology as the previous studies, but it has expanded the scope of the study also to include materials collected through recycling and compost streams as well as disposed waste.

Gathering Data

Samples of waste, compost and recycling were collected and analyzed with some promising results plus the offering of some corrective suggestions. It turns out that even though there are more students than in earlier years, the total amount of items going into the waste pathway has decreased. But there is more to the story:

  • In the residence halls (including dining facilities), what are called ‘capture rates’ for compostable materials such as food, napkins and even pizza boxes came in at 44 percent.
  • That means less than half of potential compostable material is making it into the compost bin.
  • Rather than going into the waste stream, those items could and should belong in the compost one. (As a side note, the Residence Halls have the lowest rate of compost contamination, meaning that fewer non-compostable materials are getting into the halls’ compost bins.)

The Department and the University have come a long way from pre-composting days. With a little extra thought and attention, all of us can take the next step to raise composting to a more fertile level.

For more information about composting and sustainability, go to this sustainability page on our website