Composting saves money, the environment at Iowa State

Matt Wettengel

Approximately 3.7 miles south of campus, seven large, white, half circles sit off of the gravel road and rise above the stereotypical Iowa landscape of cornfields and farmhouses, covering what looks like large piles of dirt.

These white “hoops,” as they’re called, comprise Iowa State’s compost facility.

Composting has existed at Iowa State since 1993, initially using cattle manure and yard waste accumulated by Campus Services. The composting operation is able to “divert over 2,000 tons of waste material from the landfill each year … in combination with the estimated 1,600 tons of animal waste, bedding material and additional compost bulking agents from ISU farms,” according to the compost site’s page on the ISU website.

“We produce about 4,000 tons of compost per year,” said Steve Jonas, agricultural specialist at the ISU research farms. “We’re using all of the organic stuff that we can, so we’re trying to get as much out here as we can.”

The compost generated at the ISU facility is used with new buildings on campus. The topsoil at a new building’s site is scraped off and mixed with compost and sand, which adds and helps to retain nutrients and increases the soil’s water retention. Compost is also used by KCI Landscape Supply and is available to anyone that is interested in purchasing it in large quantities.

“A lot of people think compost is fertilizer, but it’s more of an amendment to the soil,” Jonas said.

Last fall, ISU Dining became involved and began composting food waste generated from Seasons and Union Drive Marketplaces.

As of this year, all three of the residence hall dining centers contribute to the composting facility.

They all have pulpers which grind up the food waste, which then goes through the pulper, where all of the water is squeezed out and sends the remaining waste to a special trash can. This final, waterless product is what’s transported to the composting facility.

Food waste is measured to determine how much is pre-consumer, which is waste generated from food preparation, and how much is post-consumer, waste generated by students after they’ve eaten.

“We record the waste because we want to acknowledge what’s pre- and what’s post- [consumer waste],” said Nancy Levandowski, director of ISU Dining. “We think it’s very important because we don’t want to be saying to the students ‘You have more waste’ when really it’s pre-consumer because we’re getting more food products that are not in a bag that we just open up and pour out to use.”

The amount of waste produced in each dining center is also recorded, so that it can be used as a comparison to data collected from the dining center’s waste output from last year.

Data from Union Drive Marketplace will be used to monitor the difference in the amount of waste produced last year when the dining center had trays and, this year, with the conversion to trayless dining.

“What it did do for us, in going trayless [and adding] composting, is we no longer are taking that post-consumer waste and putting it down a garbage disposal and into the water,” Levandowski said.

“What was happening was we were starting to get charged for wastewater. So the first thing that we were able to do was stop having the wastewater treatments each month, and that doesn’t have to be passed on to the students in their meal plans, so we were very excited about that first step. The second step now is not having as much food cost because when you don’t produce as much food because it’s not getting wasted, you’re not using as much energy as well.”

The addition of composting to all of the dining centers effectively saves ISU Dining, and students essentially, money; providing a product that benefits the campus itself.

“We kind of feel like we’re coming full-circle, we take of the students and take care of the land as well,” Levandowski said.