Editorial: Do the most to compost


Courtesy of Stephanie Corbett

A compost pile at the University Farm where tons of food scraps are deposited every year and turned into soil to be used for crops.

Editorial Board

Landfills should be synonymous with the last resort, and yet every year, the U.S. generates nearly 300 million tons of landfill waste. Moreover, Ohio has a higher waste generation rate than most other states, at approximately 14 pounds per person per day. Half of the total state waste generation is a result of the residential and commercial sectors, and this figure has been increasing over the last decade (while industrial waste generation has decreased). 

In landfills, waste is piled on top of itself, preventing exposure to the air, and thus, oxygen. As one of our many STEM majors can tell you, this process then produces methane as a byproduct, in addition to carbon dioxide. While these are both greenhouse gases, the former is 84 times stronger than the latter in the long run. Of course, we cannot blame all methane emissions on landfills, as fossil fuels and animal agriculture do make up 60% of total emissions; however, landfill waste still contributes a significant 16% of total methane emissions. 

Amidst all the chaos that has been our last 13 months, we can be encouraged by the fact that there is a relatively simple solution to reducing our reliance on waste, landfills and thus, methane production: composting.

Composting promotes healthier soil and plants while limiting pollution, and can be managed by everyone from students in the urban center of Cleveland to farmers in rural Ohio. However, for it to be effective, we must understand how it works, why it’s beneficial and the problems that can limit its success. 

First and foremost, composting does not produce methane as a byproduct because the breakdown of the organic matter occurs in the presence of oxygen. As a result, there are smaller amounts of carbon dioxide, ammonia and water produced instead. This reaction also generates heat, creating an ideal environment for microorganisms which help further breakdown the material, eventually turning it into soil. Moreover, the soil can then be used in place of fertilizers—which also contribute to carbon emissions, especially in the agricultural sector—and some researchers have found a means of using compost with manure in order to limit soil erosion and runoff (though additional research is needed to prevent increased phosphorus levels). The addition of other nutrients, by means of food scraps, grass clippings and leaves, makes compost incredibly nutrient-rich. This nutrient-rich soil has high water retention and subsequently promotes healthy and drought-resistant plants, further limiting maintenance costs needed to replace dead growth or plants.  

Composting does require some time and patience, as well as mixing the right ratios of “browns” (brown paper, leaves, grass clippings) and “greens” (fruit and vegetable scraps). However, for our purposes, most students are not currently in a position to be composting themselves. Instead, we are subject to the sustainability efforts offered on campus at Case Western Reserve University. (That said, for students at home, consider starting a compost bin for your family or neighbors in your spare time!) 

CWRU has established its long-term sustainability goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. A sizable amount of time in the Office of Energy & Sustainability (OES) is spent reviewing this road map and determining what will be needed to achieve this goal by the deadline—if not sooner. Among this responsibility is considering new technologies and developing means for CWRU students, staff and faculty alike to be as environmentally conscious as possible without having to close our—for lack of a better word—energy-sucking laboratories. 

However, this is the long-term goal. There are many other short-term goals which are developed and executed by the OES, many of which feed into the larger overarching carbon neutrality objective. 

Director of OES Stephanie Corbett is well-positioned to address composting, especially considering her additional role as the interim University Farm director. Our conversation with her about composting ties closely together with trash and recycling initiatives. 

CWRU currently has a complex system for trash and recycling delivery. There are CWRU staff who collect the paper-only receptacles on campus and deliver it to a local paper vendor, Gateway Recycling. There are also a few CWRU owned and operated garbage and recycling trucks which transport the material to a transfer station in Cleveland Heights. In many ways, these trucks are beneficial, as we can get “personal with [our] waste stream,” as Corbett said. After all, the more we understand about our waste, the more likely we are to do something about it. These trucks are predominately used to pick up waste in smaller trash bins, while another company—Kimble Recycling & Waste Disposal—collects the large dumpsters around campus. Kimble is then responsible for distributing the waste to landfills. 

On the recycling side of things, Kimble, along with most companies today, has a material recovery facility (MRF). This part of their factory is responsible for removing trash and items which cannot be recycled. MRFs are critical to recycling because people fall on a broad spectrum of what they think they can and cannot recycle. Corbett emphasized that many people recycle incorrectly not on purpose, but rather because they think the item should be recyclable, or wish it to be so. While we could optimistically hope that such actions would encourage engineers to develop technology to make additional items recyclable, in reality, these mistakes cause swaths of contaminated recycling to be thrown into the landfill. 

A prime example of this quandary: The City of Cleveland. In 2019, Fox 8 investigative journalists (the “I-Team”) discovered that, for over a year, all city recycling collections were going to the landfill. To repeat: over $14 million per year was being spent on collecting recycling, just to have it be thrown with waste. Corbett recalls the cited cause of this decision to be an overabundance of contamination. Kimble, also responsible for collecting Cleveland’s recycling bins, was having to spend extra time, money and workers to separate out the trash from the recycling, only to find hardly any items left to actually recycle. They were forced to increase the cost of recycling beyond what Cleveland was willing to pay, or pass onto residents. The city has yet to come up with a viable solution to correct the problem. 

So, fortunately for students living on campus, your recycling is still being properly recycled, but for those of us instead living in Cleveland, ours is in a lump sum with our trash. Moreover, many people within the city limits have high trash generation due to lack of composting. Rust Belt Riders (RBR) is trying to fix that. 

RBR is a service that treats composting just as trash and recycling by promoting curbside pickup and accessible means of composting. Residents from Rocky River on the West side to Cleveland Heights and Beachwood on the East side can pay a monthly membership fee for a compost bucket which is collected and replaced every week. For a smaller fee, residents can receive the bucket and empty their compost into a series of locked drop-off containers around the city. 

Hopefully, companies like RBR are the future: compost made easy. Or better yet, Ohio copies California and Vermont in offering municipal composting pick-up in addition to trash and recycling. 

RBR works in conjunction with its sister company, Tilth, to generate different soil blends. They also have a place with CWRU. 

Since 2010, Leutner and Fribley (now Carlton) Commons, Tomlinson Marketplace and Tinkham Veale University Center have all collected pre-consumer compost and sent it to the University Farm, located nearly 10 miles east of campus in Hunting Valley. More recently, RBR has partnered with CWRU to transport the compost to the Farm and consult. Namely, they take the temperature and bacteria counts of the compost and document the weight to help CWRU and Bon Appétit Management Company know how much they are composting each week. Corbett reported over 125 tons of compost being delivered every year before the onset of the pandemic, saving 9.5 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere.  

Starting in spring 2019, CWRU started an initiative to collect post-consumer compost, gathering all the food scraps from plates in the two dining halls and delivering that, with pre-consumer compost, to the Farm. While this was initially promising, as it drastically reduced landfill-destined waste and generated more soil for the Farm, CWRU quickly ran into a similar problem as the City of Cleveland: contamination. Not only were students accidently disposing of materials that could not be composted, they were also losing metal silverware and plastic dishes, which posed concerns for the composting equipment at the farm and the safety of workers (consider the damage of a metal fork flying through the air while trying to churn compost). As a result, CWRU and Bon Appétit paused the post-consumer compost collection until they can try to determine another solution that mediates the concerns.  

Around this time, we were all on spring break and COVID-19 was spreading across the world. In no time, the university was shut down and students were sent home. The pandemic has presented many health challenges, both for human health and the health of our Earth. One major initiative gaining traction across the U.S. was plastic bag bans; however, the onset of the pandemic led to a flurry of concerns about the transmission of the virus on different surfaces—causing an immediate drop in reusable bag and container use. As a result, people who were previously limiting single-use plastic were now collecting trash bags like they were going out of style. We have very little time to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and the pandemic has caused what little sense of urgency there was to be lost in the shuffle of adapting to Zoom, trying to stay safe and healthy, and caring for loved ones.  

Similarly, many sustainability initiatives on campus have had to pause temporarily until the pandemic subsides. Among these was post-consumer composting. However, even small decisions are still being made with sustainability in mind. For example, Bon Appétit is not distributing wrapped silverware, but instead letting students choose just the items they need. Additionally, students are only given a drink if they request one, rather than automatically disseminating dozens of bottles that may be unwanted and discarded.   

Pre-consumer composting is still being delivered to the Farm from all five on-campus dining locations regularly. Moving forward, Corbett and OES are working to pilot more post-consumer composting not only in the dining locations, but in residential eating areas. Corbett reports hoping to start a pilot program with a Greek life chapter to carefully test residential composting. This program does raise concerns, not only about contamination, which could discredit its use, but due to its maintenance. While composting is relatively straightforward, especially for students who would simply be collecting and not responsible for turning it into soil, it still can attract bugs. These critters are key to composting, but could also cause some major problems if students do not appropriately and timely take care of their compost bins—and based on the cleanliness of some dorm rooms, OES is probably validated in their concerns.  

Jokes aside, post-consumer and residential composting programs could drastically change waste management at CWRU. Namely, it would reduce our methane production on campus while contributing to the initiatives, plants and produce grown at the Farm.  

Moreover, we have encouraged Corbett to further develop CWRU’s relationship with RBR to offer more options for students living off-campus. RBR’s drop-off service is an excellent way for students to limit landfill waste by switching to compost; moreover, it is much more affordable at only $10 per month, compared to $40 per month for their pick-up service. However, there are no RBR drop-off locations within walking distance of the university’s main campus. The closest locations are four miles downtown or three miles southeast, past Shaker Square. As such, we have encouraged Corbett to partner with RBR to subsidize a drop-off bin in the vicinity of University Circle. This bin would not only promote more sustainable living for off-campus students, but also residents in the neighboring areas. 

As editorials have previously discussed, CWRU has a responsibility as a powerful institution in the area to not only promote ethical and sustainable opportunities for its students, but also for staff, faculty and nearby residents who interact with the university. We are encouraged by Corbett’s interest in such a partnership, and look forward to covering the developments of the pilot on-campus residential composting program as well as the RBR drop-off location in University Circle.