Right across the river from campus, the UT Composting Facility is diverting organic waste from landfills by transforming it into nutrient-rich soil.
The task of composting on site is something very few universities take on, said UT Recycling Manager Jay Price.
“Most universities collect compost and send it out to a different facility,” he said. “This is something we oversee start to finish.”
The project began ten years ago with the composting of leaves and wood chips and has grown to include post-consumer materials, such as food waste, from several sites around campus.
Food waste has been brought to the site since 2010, thanks to the efforts of UT student Bryan Alexander.
“He kept on pushing and made the right connections to make it happen,” Price said. “We’ve been expanding our efforts to compost food waste ever since.”
UT Recycling now composts about 4,000 pounds of food waste a week with hopes to increase that number in the future.
“We’re keeping all of that food waste out of landfills,” he said. “This greatly reduces the production of methane gas.”
According to the EPA, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities. Pound for pound, methane has about twenty times more greenhouse potential than carbon dioxide.
At the composting facility the food waste is combined with wood chips and other organic materials in piles called windrows. The windrows allow the waste to biodegrade aerobically, which is faster and reduces the potential for methane production. Periodically, the windrows are turned and watered by UT Recycling to manage temperature and biodegradation.
The result, after about six months, is nutrient-rich soil that can be used at the UT Organic Farm and flower beds around campus.
“We are putting these materials to better use,” Price said. “We are taking something that would otherwise be waste and using it to create something beneficial.
“We are also providing a great learning opportunity for students on campus.”
Some of these student opportunities involve soil testing and organic waste management. UT Recycling currently has seven students working on various components of the compost facility.
There are hopes for even more opportunities like these as new initiatives are added to the composting program.
UT Recycling is working with ARAMARK, the university’s campus dining provider, to collect as much food waste as possible and to make many campus events zero-waste.
This effort was recently recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
To learn more about UT Recycling or the composting project go to environment.utk.edu.