Aspirational Goal-Setting Compels Action

How the University of Iowa’s Waste Diversion Goals Inspired Campus-Wide Composting

In the interests of competitiveness, organization leaders are setting guiding goals to improve performance in areas such as environmental stewardship, human rights, and health. Yet such aspirational goals are often perceived as irrelevant hurdles rather than opportunities to achieve a broader impact. During my senior year at the University of Iowa, drawing the connection between environmental sustainability and economic efficiency was a personal goal. Kicking off my role as the sustainability director for the student government, I set my sights on lobbying for a composting facility that could receive and process all organic waste generated on campus.

The impetus for this ambition came from interesting revelations on waste diversion from the previous academic year. The campus sustainability coordinator had conducted waste audits of the largest buildings to determine the volume of waste going to the landfill and how much of it could be recycled or composted. It turned out that 42 percent of the waste stream was recyclable, 29 percent was compostable, and only 28 percent actually belonged in the landfill.

Student gardeners collect their own organic waste to compost and use as fertilizer on their crops.

These findings led to a pilot composting program managed by two enthusiastic interns from the Office of Sustainability. Most students were already accustomed to depositing their old papers and empty bottles into the blue recycling bins. Composting, however, was considerably less familiar. Program developers reached out to department break rooms across campus to invite participation in the composting experiment. Confirmed participants then received an instructional email, signage, a five-gallon collection bin, compostable bin liners, and a weekly pick-up schedule. The volume of organic waste collected grew from 367lbs in January 2015, to 1,804lbs at the pilot’s conclusion in March 2016. In the program’s peak month, the two students collected 3,676lbs.

Sadly, funding for the project was quietly discontinued in the spring of 2016. Administrators explained that it was due to shifting priorities, and at that moment, we were acutely aware of the absence of a champion to raise attention about the initiative’s value. The sustainability coordinator had moved on from his position and the student managers had graduated. Facilities Management viewed the addition of compost collection as an increase in the number of bins serviced rather than an increase in waste diverted. No one had ever made the business case for composting.

Many building managers and representatives from Facilities Management questioned the enthusiasm for composting across faculty and students. They were proud of the accomplishment in setting up operations for recycling on campus and content to rest on their laurels, believing they had resolved the sustainability issue.

When I started in my new role, I began receiving requests for the revival of the composting service. I was curious to understand the extent of this enthusiasm and buy-in from students, staff, and faculty. Equally important, I needed to determine if the benefits of composting actually outweighed its costs.

When I started in my new role, I began receiving requests for the revival of the composting service. I was curious to understand the extent of this enthusiasm and buy-in from students, staff, and faculty. Equally important, I needed to determine if the benefits of composting actually outweighed its costs.

In building my case, I articulated how composting conformed to the institutional sustainability goals. In 2010, the former university president and the sustainability director had established sustainability goals for 2020. One of these was to divert 60 percent of landfill waste. As of 2016, only 42 percent of campus waste could be redirected. It was clear that without a composting program, the 18 percent gap would not be met.

Through conversations with diverse students on campus, I learned how committed some of the largest student groups were to holding zero waste events, where all generated waste is destined for either recycling or compost. The student government agreed to dedicate roughly 60 percent of its sustainability project funding requests to acquire compostable food serving materials for campus events. Fraternities and sororities were subscribing to private compost pick-up services for their chapter houses. At the student union, the only place where composting services were available, administrators asked students to stop delivering compost after becoming overwhelmed by the volume coming from other locations.

For the TAs and professors, sorting the waste stream in their break rooms was a habit they did not want to change. I heard stories about how they would take turns transporting the compost to their homes for collection. Some groups had even struck up agreements to drop off compost at local businesses.

Students attend composting demonstrations for extracurricular educational opportunities.

As sustainability director, I was looking at an institution whose goals and operating framework were misaligned, but whose primary stakeholders desired the very programs that would reconcile the two. Beyond achieving our stated goals and having robust support, this was a matter of efficiency and cost saving, something of interest to public universities nationwide. Surprisingly, whereas the tipping fee for landfill waste disposal in Iowa City is $42.50 per ton, organic waste only costs $24 per ton. The difference in cost reflects the value of the service’s final product, a rich fertilizer sold back to the community. Between small area farms and homeowners purchasing compost for gardening, the recycling center frequently exhausted its supply of locally produced compost.

As sustainability director, I was looking at an institution whose goals and operating framework were misaligned, but whose primary stakeholders desired the very programs that would reconcile the two.

What the student government and I wanted, however, went beyond collection and disposal. We proposed to build a composting facility to generate compost for ourselves, on our campus. By closing the material loop of production and waste, the system exemplifies cradle-to-cradle thinking. Student workers from Facilities Management and students in environmental science and biology classes would operate the facility. We found composting companies who not only set up the structure, but also gave business consultation to help clients sell the finished product. The fertilizer could be used for landscaping services, in the biology building’s greenhouse, and in the student garden. Such systems have already seen success at several state colleges including the University of Minnesota and the University of Ohio.

Under the lens of long-standing college competitions, the most important rivalry for our school is with Iowa State. They have had a composting facility since 1993, which saves them an estimated $30,000 annually. The avoided costs of landfill tipping fees allowed them to pay off their compost facility in only five years.

After presenting these findings to campus administrators, there was still a lackluster response to reinstitute the service, much less to support construction of a dedicated facility. Shortly thereafter, the student body president asked me to accompany her and the vice president to a meeting with the university president, Bruce Harreld. He immediately recognized the value of our proposal. The enthusiasm was there, and it was a clear step toward meeting the institution’s sustainability goals. President Harreld was confused to hear how, faced with all of this information, no one was working on this project already. “You tell them to get started on this or I will,” was the instruction I received, making the decision final for the University of Iowa to institute a campus-wide composting program, and eventually, its very own composting facility.

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