Rochester-Evan Zachary – 1/19/2016

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, with those Salsaritas nachos staring back at you and one large burrito under your belt you’re having second thoughts. So what happens next? Depending on where you are it could be a different story. RIT has taken steps to address it’s waste including but certainly not limited to a formal commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. In spite of this, the management of organic waste at RIT still has a long way to go before it helps, rather than hurts, the goal of becoming carbon neutral.

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Sources marked with an asterisk participate in the Recover Rochester food recovery program which sends food to locations like Open Door Mission and Blessed Sacrament Church.

In 2014 RIT recycled nearly 81 tons of food as well as (with the help of Recover Rochester) recovered over 7 tons of food for donation to local shelters and pantries. There’s no way of knowing exactly how much food waste is headed for the landfill. Follow some and you should (usually) end up in one of two places, a landfill or an anaerobic digestor. The latter can be imagined as a massive mechanical stomach or viewed in more detail here. Sending food waste to a digestor yields waste gas, which is captured for energy, and a kind of fertilizer. Most modern landfills also have gas capture capabilities, but they carry troubling environmental consuquences. Without better waste tracking it’s difficult to tell exactly how much food RIT is throwing away but some recent data looks like this:

The Good
Many people are surprised to learn that composting is already happening behind the scenes at RIT. Dining facilities including Gracie’s, Shumway Dining Commons, Brick City, and RITz have pre-consumer composting. The program is expanding and stabilizing in central campus. Facilities Maintenance took on the task of expanding the waste loading dock to properly accommodate a compost accumulation area.

“This renovation allowed Dining Services  and FMS employees to manage waste, compost, and recyclable materials without comprising their safety. There was very little room in the loading dock area to hold compostable material and minimal room to accept deliveries. Holding the compost on the dock also created an unpleasant smell through the A level hallways in the SAU.  Additionally, this renovation eliminated the need from staff taking material outside, down an uneven pathway which has cause numerous falls; particularly in the winter months.”

– Administrative, Executive Director, Student Auxilliary Services – Kurt Ingerick

Student Government Pilots
So why isn’t there more composting on campus? Well, in short, campus administration is worried that students, staff, and faculty won’t compost correctly. Improper disposal of waste can create contentious relationships between RIT and the organizations that help it manage it’s waste. Students, staff, and faculty seeking to better understand and disprove this notion are taking action through the Student Government Sustainability Committee. Beginning in mid-spring of 2016 the compost pilot offered free buckets that included signage and information about composting to students living in a selected area of University Commons. The buckets, which previously contained fresh food, were set aside by staff at Gracie’s to save money and materials.

Environmental Sustainability Health and Safety student, Jeremy Clink, explains:

“Our first time running the Compost Pilot occurred during the spring semester of the 2015-16 academic year and serviced a portion of the University Commons upperclassmen housing. The pilot taught us a few valuable lessons that included an understanding of how much effort it takes to collect and process the large amount of food waste that is generated in residential campus areas as well as some of the better ways to spread the word about the compost program overall…

“The first pilot drove me to start a new program that will be officially started spring semester of the 2016-17 academic year and service the Greek mansions located at Greek circle on campus. This new program provides a compost bucket to each of the mansions for their in house kitchens that will be delivered along with a presentation from myself covering compost contamination guidelines and the positive impact of composting food waste”
-Jeremy Clink – RIT Environmental Sustainability; Health & Safety Student

Roughly 40 students out of the 250 living in the pilot area participated in the pilot. And while these  numbers may seem disheartening, the goal of the pilot was not to collect as much material as possible. The goal of the program was to show that the students who participated know how to dispose of their food waste correctly.

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Yogurt and frozen fruit containers repurposed as compost containers. All containers came with informational material.

Food Waste Research and the Community Garden
There are open and available places for you to drop off your food waste! South-east of the Gene Polisseni Center the RIT Community Garden acts as lab space, and opt-in garden plots. To better complement the garden there are several compost corales along the north edge of the garden. Excluding, dairy, eggs, and other meat products, organic waste can be dropped off continuously in this area for those willing to take out their own food waste. Kevin Kane, the Chair of RIT Student Government’s Sustainability Committee says:”

“The program that most excites me is the increased availability of fresh, local food through the farmers markets put on by RIT Dining, Headwater Foods, and RIT Student Environmental Action League. Food that comes from local farmers with minimal travel time and packaging. This is important for students to be able to understand food production and consumer responsibility. The farmers markets are very popular, and have much capacity to expand.”
-Kevin Kane – RIT SG Sustainability Chair

RIT also actively strives to promote the effectiveness of food waste technologies and practices through research such as a recent one million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. In other research initiatives faculty like Dr. Jeff Lodge engineer creative uses for streams of food waste. The Boathouse near the Red Barn Climbing Gym was previously used to research the breakdown of organic material during the winter. According to Professor Josh Goldowitz, the heat from the compost created so much steam “it looked like the building was smoking.”

The Bad (but Hopeful!)
Despite the many diverse advancements of food waste management at RIT there is still work to be done when it comes to “walking the walk.” With two of the main eateries and several smaller locations on campus without any form of organic waste diversion it is clear that changes still need to be made. From a residential standpoint, composting also has a ways to go. However, there have been strong examples set in this area by companies like Community Compost, (who, despite being in Rochester, is unable to service RIT because of mismatch between hauling trucks and receptacles.) Or by the Texas State University Bobcat Blend Program which processes organic waste at a 5-acre on-campus site.

Signage and the actual waste receptacle interface needs to be concise and informative. In a recent series of waste audits it was found that improving the lid and signage on a container could decrease contamination by 21%. Combining collection logistics strategies from experienced campuses and improving the appearance of the waste receptacles in use could create the conditions for a viable composting program.

Still didn’t find out what you wanted to know? Emailing the Sustainability / Recycling account at can provide answers to further questions!

About the author:
Evan Zachary is a fourth year Environmental Sustainability Health and Safety student at Rochester Institute of Technology. Through involvement with Goodbye Goodbuy and the Flower City Pickers he has learned more about how to create relief through reuse. Evan coordinates the Student Environmental Action League’s social media outlets and is always on the prowl for new content!