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Making strides on campus sustainability

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Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 9:00 pm

Gonzaga University won an Outstanding Recyclers Award from the Washington State Recycling Association for 2011. Through the Advisory Council on Stewardship and Sustainability, the school has cut down approximately 25 percent of its garbage through recycling, composting and reducing efforts.

"That award, as I understand it, is given to campuses that have made the best efforts to reduce their impacts," said Parker Townley, a senior and an officer for Gonzaga Environmental Organization and a member of the ACSS. "UW probably has the best recycling system in the state, but we made a huge improvement, and we're catching up a lot faster than anyone else."

Waste Management, the nation's largest garbage and recycling business, set up shop in Spokane last year. GU tested its new single-stream recycling system in different areas of campus last fall. By January, the entire campus had made the switch. The COG and the other school dining went from collecting two large bins of recycling per week to six, because of how often WM can pick them up.

The single-stream process makes recycling easier on everyone. Instead of having to sort plastic from paper from newspapers, etc., most recyclable items can now go into one bin. They are then sorted at recycling plants. Currently, WM uses Spokane's recycling facilities, but by next fall, they will have built their updated, more efficient plant.

An increase in efficient composting also contributed to GU earning the award.

"We've been composting for two years or so, mainly in resident dining," Sarah Clifford, Sodexo unit marketing specialist, said. "When we first started [composting], we were only getting about half of a bin full of one compost bin, once a week. We now get a full bin that's picked up twice a week."

Most of this happens behind the counter in the COG. Employees are trained to know what can and cannot be scraped off plates into the composting bin. They have a compactor to store the compost in until it is picked up by WM and brought to Barr-Tech, the 2-year-old composting company for the Spokane area. While GU used to compost only yard debris, it has expanded to food waste in the past year.

Aside from Sodexo meals, other popular places GU students visit, including Panda Express, Ultimate Bagel, Starbucks, Thomas Hammer Coffee and Pita Pit, are also working on sustainability.

Ultimate Bagel, located on Hamilton Street, varies in the amount of recycled materials it produces during a week. The employees sort and distribute the recycled materials themselves, but the amount recycled depends on what is used, said employee Courianne Willard. Ultimate Bagel does "regular recycling," referring to cardboard, papers, and plastics, but does not compost.

Starbucks recycles "all milk jugs, large syrup bottles, plastic, and newspaper" but doesn't have any actual numbers on how much is recycled, according to employee Michael Winterfield. Starbucks gives the compostable grounds to customers who can use them to fertilize their gardens.

Thomas Hammer Coffee, located in Jepson Center, uses the recycle bins in Jepson for everything they recycle, so it is hard to distinguish how much is recycled in a week. Thomas Hammer also does not compost their materials, said one employee.

Pita Pit, on East Sharp Avenue, "currently [recycles] cans, plastics, and cardboard. We would have some compostable food waste after prepping veggies, but definitely not very much," said Pita Pit's manager, Erik Morris.

Panda Express recycles both oil and the traditionally-recycled cardboard, paper and plastics, manager Kathy Nelson said. The amount recycled, though, "totally depends on how much is used," just as at other food venues. Panda also has reusable plates that are microwave safe and dishwasher safe, and has a third party compost whatever materials are compostable.

While GU began composting two years ago, Seattle University, GU's sister Jesuit college, dates their earliest composting efforts to 1995, according to its sustainability website. The school built its own compost facility in 2003, which is mixed and cured on campus for a few months, and then spread over soil on the university grounds. GU, while it collects compost, does not utilize the compost on campus. The compost is sold to Barr-Tech, which sells it to the agriculture and landscaping business.

SU's facility can only compost food that is in the "pre-consumer" stage - meaning they recycle excess from the campus kitchens and cafes, but not leftovers from student plates. The website cites 52,000 pounds of food waste as being composted yearly, an estimate that compost technician Matthew Benedict said has risen in recent years. GU cannot estimate its figures yet, since the program is still in its infancy.

"[SU] has three four-yard compost dumps on campus that we fill to capacity three days a week, that's a ton of raw compost a week," Benedict said. "When it's cured and done, it's only about two-thirds the size it used to be."

Though the pre-consumer waste is dramatically reduced by the campus facility, post-consumer waste cannot be processed on SU grounds.

"We compost pre-consumer on campus," Benedict said. "Post-consumer waste we send out to Cedar Grove [a local recycling and composting facility that the school used to send all its composting to]. We have two compost streams [pre and post]. The EPA requires permitting, a very specific kind of [testing must occur for post-consumer waste]."

 Spokane had another site built in the '80s, but it didn't last very long, and Spokane occasionally shipped its recycling and composting to the western side of the state, according to Scott Deatherage, an employee at Barr-Tech. It takes in around 300 tons of material per day. Only 10 percent of the waste, however, comes from food waste. Most of it is yard debris of some sort. The Barr-Tech site can take four times the amount of compost that it has right now. 

Both schools are concerned about accidental contamination. When students come from all over the world to attend a college, Benedict said, everyone has different experiences and knowledge about recycling. Seattle U's composting facility can handle contamination if it is less than 5 percent of the total mass. Recycling deposits can be contaminated by compostable goods and vice versa. Barr-Tech in Spokane hand-picks out the garbage from the compost piles. And WM thoroughly sorts through the recycling.

"If you have a compostable cup, one of those clear plastic ones, they are made of corn," Benedict said. "They will break down in a compost pile. Starbucks' [petroleum-based cups] won't, but it can get recycled, just not composted. Corn plastic breaks down much faster than the petroleum-based Starbucks cup.

"One of the things that we've done that was successful is that my department has work study students," Benedict said. "I train them, teach them all about the recycling systems we have in Seattle [and] what materials go in what stream and why. We do tabling events three or four times a year in strategic locations. It's a peer education thing, students tend to be a lot more receptive to that."

Now that the school has a recycling and composting system set-up, the ACSS at Gonzaga wants to expand their impact on waste.

"Some people just don't know what goes into compost," said Clifford. "We first tried to start it where it was up to the students to put in the right things, but it just wasn't going very well ... Another struggle that we have is the transportation of any other compostables that aren't happening in [the COG] building, getting them over here to this side of the campus."

They are considering starting a student club to get a system working where food scraps from Cataldo and other businesses on campus can be transferred to the large compactor by the COG.

In the next week, GEO will be setting up compost bins around campus. It has been designing the labels, using descriptive pictures depicting what can and cannot be composted. Its intent is to determine how effective people can be about composting on a smaller scale before asking students campus-wide to compost in large doses. For resident living, Coughlin, Corkery, Kennedy, Dillon and Goller all offer composting to students, but many don't use it or know of its existence.

"It's hard to change the culture. Education is the big thing," Townley said. "The students can't make the decisions themselves, because we don't have control over budgets. But we can pressure the university. Yeah, things are on the up and up at Gonzaga. ... It just all depends on students, on whether or not they care enough."

Reporting contributed by Dori Bergman, Amy Busek and Bridget Carrick.

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