After students have stood in line, eaten their meal and disposed of the leftovers in the San Juan Dining Hall, a process starts to turn that waste into new life.
Jerritt Gibbons, Campus Dining supervisor, showed off the system that most students don’t get to see.
Behind the spinning mechanism where diners place their dishes lays a trough leading to a vat that is a little larger than a trash can.
All compostable material is broken down into a goop before being shot down through a system of pipes and compressors which composes a large compost receptacle, Gibbons said. This composter takes waste from San Juan Dining as well as The Rocket diner and even Animas Perks.
Where the compost goes
Once the compost has been compressed, it is able to be used as mulch to add nutrients to local gardens.
Colleen Mergele, one of the students responsible for overseeing the mulching process, outlined how the process works.
While food waste travels through the compressors in less than a minute, the composter breaks this down further over the course of two weeks, she said.
Then Mergele and her colleague extract the compost into large bags to set them aside for several months until the end of the growing season, she said.
During these months, nature breaks down the compost further so it can more easily soak into the soil, she said. Tests are regularly run on various chemical levels to ensure that the material is safe to be used.
Once the compost has been compressed, it is able to be used as mulch to add nutrients to gardens, Gibbons said.
The mulch is moved into the Campus Gardens behind the Center for Southwest Studies to grow more food, accounting for $1,000-$2,000 worth of the dining hall’s menu throughout the year, Marty Pool, Environmental Center coordinator, said.
This process has been used at Fort Lewis College since 2011, when a grant was given to the Environmental Center and Campus Dining to purchase the machine for $60,000, Pool said.
Each year, $5,000 is given to the joint effort to keep the machine running and make it more efficient, he said.
Why it’s important
The process of using food waste to grow more food is what Pool called a closed-loop system, where leftover food is repurposed instead of creating more waste.
“It’s a great system,” Pool said. “In a perfect world, we’d have several more all around campus and everyone would understand how to separate compostable material from other parts of the waste stream, but given our resources we’re doing a really great job.
Over the seven years the system has been active, it has gotten significantly larger to hold more material, Pool said.
Even with the larger model however, an estimated 20 percent of food waste is still escaping the loop, Pool said.
The biggest thing people can do to reduce food waste is cutting back at the start of the cycle, Pool said. People dining on campus should only take what they can eat.
Pool said that certain fats and oils cannot be composted. For instance, excess roast beef from The Rocket diner cannot be fed into the system with any effect.
Even with these shortcomings, the system creates 200-300 pounds of compost per week, and four to six tons per year, Pool said.
Another continued problem with the system is that plastic waste cannot be composted, he said.
The dish crew has to remove each individual bit of plastic from the system themselves, numbering in the thousands, he said. Any plastics that are missed find their way into the mulch, and do not break down over time. This makes it so that the mulch cannot blend with the soil as effectively.
Campus Dining is also performing smaller scale eco-friendly actions, he said. They have added a system where students can take a dining hall mug with them and use it instead of disposable cups, as well as using non-disposable cups, plates and silverware when catering.