Waste Not, Want Not
By Laura Janota
Nikki Schmidt used to assume that her uneaten food in the McCormick Dining Center of Roosevelt’s Wabash Building was headed for the trash. But the undergraduate history major was surprised to learn that the bits of pizza and salad she couldn’t finish are being ground up and reused as compost in the community garden at the Schaumburg Campus and in the rooftop gardens in the Wabash Building.
And left-over food isn’t the only thing being recycled. Biodegradable-cardboard meal containers, unbleached napkins, coffee cups made from corn products and utensils of soy also are in the gardens’ compost mix.
“Sustainability is ultimately about closing a loop and completing a cycle,” said Paul Matthews, assistant vice president for campus planning and operations. “As an institution we are saying ‘It’s not okay anymore to simply consume resources. We’ve got to rebuild and reuse everything we can.’”
In addition to being environmentally and economically advantageous, recycling and composting help produce great food. Produce grown from compost has an intense flavor and is often in demand by chefs, including those who work in high-end restaurants.
“It’s really neat to be part of something that is coming full circle,” said Schmidt, a Chicago Campus student, who got the ball rolling recently by depositing her lunch tray in the dishwasher’s rack outside the dining center’s kitchen. “I am amazed to think that what I am starting will make a mark at the Schaumburg Campus.”
Nancy Sondy, executive secretary for the College of Education in Schaumburg, could be one who benefits. By late summer, when she eats at the Schaumburg Campus Snack Café, she will be able to order meals made from vegetables grown in the campus’ community garden with compost containing food waste from the Chicago Campus’ dining center. “It’s an incredible concept and something that I am happy to be part of,” she said.
Trays like the one Schmidt recently dropped off in Chicago go immediately to the kitchen where food-service employees with Roosevelt’s Chicago dining center contractor, Food Services Inc., (FSI), sort waste for recycling, washing, pulping or trash.
“We are in a position to divert up to 90 percent of our waste for recycling,” said William Reich, FSI director at the dining center. Under his direction, trained workers separate plastic, petroleum products, bleached paper, metal and glass from the compostable food waste and biodegradables.
“About 60 percent of our waste is being composted,” added Reich. “That puts us in the forefront for Midwest food operations, as there are only a handful of others in the greater Chicago area doing it to that extent.”
The achievement is due largely to the dining center’s new Somat pulper machine and hydro-extractor, an estimated $40,000 investment made by the University when it built the Wabash Building in 2011.
“It’s a big capital investment and usually one of the things removed from building plans as a wish-list item,” said Bill Rzasa of Don Camacho & Associates, manufacturer’s representative for Somat, which is a recognized leader in food waste reduction and diversion equipment.
“In the University’s case, those who led the building project told us: ‘We definitely want the product. It’s something that will help reduce waste and increase sustainability,’” he said.
The Somat pulper is one of the green design items contributing to the Wabash Building’s certification as a Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project by the U.S. Green Building Council.
“A lot of new-building plans don’t have this feature,” said Susan Heinking, sustainability leader for the Wabash Building’s architect, VOA Associates, overseer of the LEED certification process for the project.
“The inclusion of this kind of technology and the use of its by-products for composting goes beyond LEED,” she said. “We believe it can be a learning opportunity and strategy for closing the loop with sustainable design that others will want to incorporate into future projects.”
At Roosevelt’s Chicago Campus, the RU Green student organization is taking the lead in sustainability efforts and is growing vegetables in compost material in two rooftop gardens located on the Wabash Building’s fifth floor.
See how the University's composting program works.
“We are working to turn these gardens into living-and-learning laboratories,” said Troy Withers, president of RU Green and a major in the University’s growing Sustainability Studies program.
The compost initiative is also helping Schaumburg Campus gardeners like Greg Ingles, manager of the Snack Café.
“We grew a lot of tomatoes, zucchini and other vegetables last year,” said Ingles, one of the pioneering gardeners who tried his green thumb during 2012 in the Schaumburg Campus community garden located near McConnor Parkway.
“We had some good harvests, but I came to realize that the ground out there isn’t as suitable as it could be for gardening,” added Ingles. “It needs the compost material and it makes sense to get it from a source that is doing industrial composting.”
Somat pulpers initially were used by the U.S. Navy to reduce waste volume on submarines. Today, the equipment is widely in use as a means to shrink the size of waste going into landfills.
Approximately 100 entities in northern Illinois, including Great Lakes Naval Air Base, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Abbott Laboratories, Caterpillar and HSBC Bank, use the technology to save money on waste removal. Few have taken the next step of closing the sustainability loop, but that day may be coming as investors take advantage of a new state law providing incentives for commercial composting.
“The University is among a small group — about 25 percent of our customers — using the technology for composting,” said Rzasa. “We expect that number to grow to as high as 75 percent as commercial composting catches on in Illinois.”
Additionally, the size of the Schaumburg Campus community garden has been expanded from 11 to 21 plots to support additional produce.
“We want a production garden that can supply much of the produce, particularly during harvest season, for the Snack Café,” said Ingles, who now has two garden plots.
“I have a bigger space this season and my goal is to increase output,” added Shaun Keating, director of student and enrollment services for the College of Pharmacy at the Schaumburg Campus.
Last year, Keating harvested 860 pounds of tomatoes, peppers, leafy greens, radishes, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, zucchini, onions and potatoes. This season, he hopes to increase the take to 1,000 pounds. This will enable the Roosevelt administrator to give away more of his produce at harvest time to the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Naperville, which helps feed the needy in the region’s far western suburbs.
“The University’s compost project is a great idea on many levels,” said Keating. “Not only does it cut down on waste, but it also allows us to grow more delicious food, which can help a lot of people in our community,” he said.
Feature image: Kenton Franklin and Troy Withers, undergraduate majors in Sustainability Studies. Read about the projects they have managed from experiments to success.