Courtesy of the University

Cornell's compost facility processes food waste.

September 24, 2018

Students Work to Reduce Compost Rejected Due to Cross-Contamination

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Despite Cornell’s elaborate composting operations in recent years to ensure that as little organic material as possible goes to the landfill, the no-waste campus dream seems far from fruition.

One of the challenges standing in the way of better waste management, according to Elena Petkova ’20, student coordinator with R5 Operations — a division of the Cornell facilities and campus services intended to promote sustainable practices — is cross-contamination in the bins used by students at cafes and eateries.

Food leftovers and napkins are the only compostable waste on campus, and any other items disposed of in compost bins contaminate the remainder of the compost. This poses a threat to the sustainable waste management mission because Cornell Farm Services then rejects the contaminated compost and sends it to a landfill, Petkova explained in an email to The Sun.

This rule applies even to the utensils used by some of the cafes on campus that are advertised as compostable, because the piles at the composting facility do not reach a high enough temperature to decompose the utensils, leaving behind hard residue that compromises the quality of the finished product, according to Petkova.

“In addition, there was confusion in the past about which utensils are compostable and which are not so to simplify the system, only food scraps and napkins are accepted,” Petkova said.   

To further enhance Cornell’s composting capacity, on Sept. 4, the Campus Sustainability Office and Cornell Farm Service partnered up to launch Compost Managers, a program intended to target food waste in their kitchens and dorms.

According to Petlova, “the program operates thanks to dedicated student volunteers who are willing to take care of a compost bin they keep in a kitchen of their residence hall.”

Targeting dorms and on-campus student living seeks to fill in the gaps of a system that already includes back end disposal used by kitchen staff at all dining halls, and front end disposal used by students at all dining halls and at cafes including Mandibles, Trillium, Mattins, Atrium, Bus Stop Bagels, Macs and Terrace.

In addition to formal University efforts, living centers like the Ecology Co-op and Hasbrouck apartments have taken up composting, according to Petkova. Tompkins County Recycling Materials and Management will also accept up to ten gallons per person per day at drop locations all around Ithaca, including East Hill Plaza and Cayuga Heights.

According to the Sustainable Campus website, Cornell currently composts about 850 tons of food scraps and other materials annually from 22 dining units and food vendors on campus.

The food waste materials from Cornell Dining are combined with animal bedding and plant material from various research facilities and taken to the compost facility operated by the Cornell Farm Services. The waste material delivered to the facility is destined for a six to nine month transformation into fully composted material that is sold to the public or sent to campus or agricultural facilities.