Audit deems UM dining hall composting efforts a success

Susan Thwing
Release Date: 

It’s safe to say students using Bursley Dining Hall know how to compost. 

And there are stats to prove it. 

Recently, Planet Blue Student Leaders (PBSL), in collaboration with Michigan Dining and Net Impact, conducted a comprehensive waste audit at Bursley Dining Hall on North Campus to determine if recent educational and promotional efforts are working. 

The results indicate a resounding “yes.” 

The audit, which took place on two separate evenings in March, covered recycling, compost, and landfill waste produced in back-of-house (BOH) food preparation. It also surveyed post-consumer compost from uneaten dishes. Only BOH recycling was reviewed as the dining halls offer a low volume of recyclable materials, using reusable plates, flatware and glasses. 

Students conducting the audit were: Ayako Tichler, PBSL Audit Assistant; Crede Strauser, PBSL Audit Project Manager; Claire Haase, Net Impact Undergrad Audit Assistant; Ben Ingall, PBSL Audit Assistant; and Sara Sotirov, Net Impact Undergrad Audit Assistant. 

“The results are highly encouraging,” says Haase, noting the near perfect compost compliance for BOH areas and progress towards lower contamination rates in front-of-house (FOH) dining spaces. In total, PBSL audited over 1,400 pounds of combined landfill, recycling, and compost waste. Of the overall waste, compost alone made up for almost 70 percent of volume. 

“Nearly 96 percent of items were composted correctly, which is key to making this program effective,” says Haase.

However, the student auditors noted that there is room for improvement including proper bagging of compost for durability, compressing cardboard before bagging and completely filling each recycling bag before sealing it, and better compost education for guests. 

Also, contamination of compostable and recyclable samples was found. Although 99.7 percent of staff and guests composted properly and 99.82 recycled, 0.25 percent and 0.18 percent respective contamination adds to the challenge.

And items that should have been composted or recycled were found in the landfill bins.

“Bursley Dining can still improve substantially in diverting its waste from landfill. Within each landfill sample, we found a troubling volume of compostable materials, punctuated by parchment paper and compostable food waste. It remains important to communicate that landfill bins should not be considered a ‘catch-all’ waste stream when it’s not clear whether an item is compostable or recyclable.”

But Haase was pleased with the initial audit results.

“It was amazing so little of wrong materials were found in the bins. I think one reason why we have a high compliance rate is we’ve made it really easy to participate in the program with information readily available near the bins and in other locations,” she says.  
Alex Bryan, Sustainable Food Program Manager, Michigan Dining,  says the audit helped establish the go-ahead for an expanded program. 

 “The most direct and impactful way to reduce food waste on campus comes from the efforts already underway in Dining,” Bryan says. The next step is to expand on residential composting -- which we have in Bursley -- to even buildings without a food service as those areas generate a large amount of compostable waste,” Bryan explains. “Educating staff and students on what is compostable from their offices or rooms starts to build both knowledge and a culture around composting on campus. 

“The end goal is to not be taking anything to a landfill,” he says.
Haase says the key is making composting a habit “Once you start the habit of effective composting, you’ll automatically look for compost bins wherever you go.”

That thought is illustrated by a recent Sustainability Cultural Indicators (SCIP) study, distributed by the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research, that analyzed the results of the 12-week Bursley Residential Composting Program pilot in 2016. Data covering composting awareness and behavior for students living in Bursley in 2016 when the experiment was underway and students in other residence halls show conclusive evidence that the pilot had a positive impact. For example, nearly 4 in 10 sophomores who lived in Bursley in 2016 said they know “a lot” or “a fair amount” about composting compared to less than 3 in 10  (28 percent) sophomores who lived in other residence halls during their freshman year.
Similarly, more than half (52 percent) of the 2016  Bursley residents “ sometimes” or “almost always” composted waste scraps compared to 43 percent of sophomores living in other residence halls. Finally, former Bursley residents were more likely to know about U-M composting initiatives than from residents of other residence halls. (71 percent versus 64 percent). 
Living sustainably is an important part of being a Wolverine, as the university has engaged in mission and goals for sustainability into 2025. Among those goals are to invest in sustainability culture programs to educate the internal community, track behavior, and report on progress over time. The university also plans to reduce waste tonnage diverted to disposal facilities by 40 percent below 2006 levels by 2025.

“With over 95 percent of waste from our two-day sample set properly sorted among landfill, Landfill Compliance recycling, and compost, Bursley is clearly on track to eliminate contamination and move closer to zero-waste operations,” the students write in the audit report. “This display of excellence positions Bursley well to expand its leadership within M|Dining, sharing best practices across the entire U-M campus, including non-dining locations.”