The Curious Case of Composting at UC San Diego

In efforts to go carbon neutral, the University of California system is committed to going zero waste by 2020. In order to achieve this goal, UC San Diego instituted a number of programs such as installing hydration stations and implementing a single-bin recycling system, among others. Some of the most vital, and most arduous, of these, are pre- and post-consumer composting programs. However, high-level contamination on the post-consumer side resulted in the recent decision to remove the composting bins from dining halls. Since composting is extremely beneficial for the environment and directly related to UCSD’s sustainability goals, resigning from their responsibility to compost is unacceptable. It is imperative for the university to put forth an effort to overcome the obstacles that led to the high level of contamination of post-consumer compost. Specifically, UCSD should work to educate students about the importance of composting and the proper protocols of trash sorting.

UCSD and students alike should not underestimate the impact composting has. First,  the compost produced after processing food scraps could be used in agriculture to substitute fertilizers which contaminate groundwater, thus alleviating adverse effects of agricultural production. Second, and most importantly, landfills cause large emissions of methane in the atmosphere, which has been known to contribute to climate change. 36.7 percent of US greenhouse gases comes from waste processing. The majority of this number comes from landfills where all our trash goes after we sorted out the recyclables, but 25 percent of this trash could be composted away from landfills.

Composting can be tricky, however, since its contamination can lead to tragic consequences. Contaminated compost can kill the crops and poison people who eat them, while plastic or paper can be crushed into tiny particles and dispersed along the waste territory where it will persist in the soil forever, too small to be cleaned up. The strict requirement for compost cleanliness is the reason why composting is much less common than recycling or landfills. It is also the reason that Miramar Greenery, the San Diego City landfill, and composting facility, has a strict requirement of 1 percent contamination — a goal that compost from UCSD Dining Halls facility has never managed to achieve.

Some explained that students are to blame for the failure to meet compost cleanliness requirements. However, UCSD students are very environmentally minded; they are just not educated enough on the topics of trash sorting and the importance of it. Most students know the significance and ease of recycling, but the protocols associated with composting are far from most students’ homes. So, they dump their trash in one, maximum two, bins guided by unfamiliar guidelines, and move on to the rest of their day without giving composting a second thought.

The university can prevent such a common problem by educating those students on the importance of waste sorting in general and composting in particular. Indeed, education programs did prove to be important in decreasing compost contaminations in Dining Halls. The Washington University of St. Louis reported a significant decrease in compost contamination after the implementation of Washington University Green Ambassador waste diversion outreach program which aimed to educate newly arrived freshmen on composting. In order to decrease post-consumer compost contamination, UCSD should also implement an educational program. The most effective way would be to model it closely after the Mandatory Sexual Harassment Prevention Training from Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination that every student and faculty member would have to complete before the arrival to campus.

Education can be bolstered by a few smaller efforts, as well. Student volunteers from organizations like the Econauts or the Student Sustainability Collective should give out flyers about compost on library walk. Also, already existing pictograms nearby the trash containers should be enhanced to become more prominent and elaborate. Compost bins should also be set 7 feet apart from other bins to prevent rushed students from dumping their trash together in a compost can. In this way, sustainably-minded students can compost the proper items, and students who are not sustainably-minded will not contaminate the compost bins.

Composting is not easy. The University, the students, and the faculty should all work together to minimize our environmental impact and meet the University of California zero-waste goal. Many countries such as Austria, many cities such as Copenhagen, and many universities such as St. John’s University are currently composting at a high rate. We should not be left behind.