U-Wisconsin Launches Compost Program

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has launched a project to collect and compost food waste from campus eateries. Organized by We Conserve, a university-wide program that promotes environmental stewardship practices, the project aims to compost more than 400 tons of food waste annually when fully implemented.

"UW has been composting for years with other organic materials, but we've found that great synergy can exist by adding food. It can really improve the quality of the compost product," says Faramarz Vakili, program director for We Conserve.

To collect food waste, We Conserve worked with the Wisconsin Union's food services unit, which helped set up food-waste reservoirs at two locations. One is in the kitchens at Memorial Union, where food is prepared for all Union delis across campus. Twice a week, employees collect spoiled and unsold food that would normally wind up in garbage cans.

The second reservoir, located at Grainger Hall's Capital Cafe, serves as a collection point for post-consumer food. Food from both sites is taken to the West Madison Agricultural Research Station, a facility on Mineral Point Road run by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, for composting.

The project has presented some challenges, particularly in educating consumers about how to sort food for composting. "Not all foods belong in a compost heap, especially meat and dairy products," says West Madison Superintendent Thomas Wright, who oversees composting at the research facility. “So it's important that discarded food wastes are separated to keep out things that don't decompose well.”

To help guide consumers, We Conserve constructed a food-collection station at the cafe that uses signs and pictures to designate the proper containers for different kinds of food. Vakili says the station has helped boost the number of people participating in the project, and he's confident that diners will catch on and embrace food sorting in time.

"We want to put the idea of environmental stewardship on people's radars," he says. "When a person is engaged in doing a good thing for the environment, then subconsciously they are interested in doing more. One thing leads to another."

Meanwhile, the university hopes its successful composting experiment leads to an even bigger impact. Plans are to expand the project into residence hall dining facilities by the end of the year. Provisions have already been made to provide the dining halls with collection bins and equip the staff with biodegradable plates. If students embrace the idea, it could make a significant dent in reducing food waste on campus.

"Effective composting takes time and effort, and while we would love everyone on campus to create their own, that's just not possible," says Wright. "So this program is making it easy for them. All they have to do is give us their food, and we will do the work."