CU Boulder students have been environmental activists since the 1970s. In 1976 they established a student-led recycling initiative on campus, followed by advocating for the student bus pass 1991, funding one of the first wind-energy purchases by a university in 2000 and eventually creating the first public-facing compostable site on campus in 2007. Without a doubt, the actions of CU Boulder students, coupled with their desire to challenge the sustainability status quo, has helped progress the university’s environmental efforts.
The exceptional student involvement works in tandem with university staff, helping CU to stay relevant and progressive in approaching environmental issues. And specifically, the campus has seen tremendous growth in campuswide composting efforts in the past 20 years alone.
Compostable items are a valuable resource. But if you treat it like trash, that’s how it will end up.
In an effort to learn more about on-campus composting, and to help spread the word of composting best practices, we sat down with compost guru Ed von Bleichert—a CU alumnus who has influenced CU Boulder’s on-campus environmental operations for more than 25 years. His expertise is extensive, and as the new Sustainability and Resiliency Program manager in Facilities Management, he notes CU’s inventive role in universitywide composting. For Ed, one of the most effective ways to build CU Boulder’s sustainable legacy is through on-campus cross-collaboration:
“Working with students and volunteers is one of the most rewarding parts of this job,” von Bleichert says. “The opportunities to apply student research—whether a paper, a report or a presentation—into actual operations is one thing we’ve done routinely. I know of examples where students have done an independent study and we’ve adopted their strategy into daily operations.”
Collaboration has been the secret to CU’s sustainable success. In fact, composting on-campus has been a working collaboration between expert staff and students since the 1990s:
- Mid 1990s: CU Boulder collaborated with the city of Boulder and local commercial haulers on a composting pilot program.
- 2004-05: Four of the seven dining halls on campus started composting post-consumer food waste. Eventually pre-consumer food waste was composted. This means the prep waste from the kitchen and the uneaten food sent back on the dish line were diverted from the landfill.
- 2007: CU Boulder had its first zero-waste event at Global Jam, a welcoming event for students. Zero-waste means diverting at least 90 percent of waste from the landfill, which is mostly attributed to using compostable serviceware and composting pre- and post-consumer foods.
- 2007: The CU Boulder student body initiated and governed publicly accessible composting in the UMC building. This helped pave the way for other public-facing compost sites across campus.
- 2008: CU Boulder committed to Ralphie’s Green Stampede, which is an extensive effort to green the Athletic Department and games. The university partnered with a Boulder-based company, Eco Products, to create custom compostable serviceware for CU Boulder football games and was the first major athletics venue in the country to go fully zero-waste on game day.
- 2010: Facilities Management received a Sustainable CU grant, which allowed the university to include compost bins in every restroom in three buildings across campus. Since the compost bins proved successful, CU Boulder’s composting efforts have expanded to 22 buildings.
- 2014: CU Boulder invented a process for spreading compost-rich water on campus grounds. Brilliant CU Boulder minds found a way to brew compost tea in the high-tech irrigation systems and inject it straight into the main line. CU Boulder was the first university in the world to use this technique.
- 2016: The campus started a pilot restroom composting program in the Buckingham residence hall. With more and more students asking for this resource to be available in other halls, the goal is to implement composting across all residence halls in the future.
With composting becoming more accessible around Boulder and across campus, von Bleichert shares the top six things we should know about composting:
- Go back to the basics: Gain a basic understanding of compostable items: Only food waste, yard trimmings, compostable serviceware (cups, plates, napkins, flatware, etc.), plant based products and compostable bin liners are allowed. Anything else is considered a prohibitive or contaminant.
- Keep it clean: All noncompostable items are considered contaminants and must be removed from the bins—by hand. Some contaminants, such as glass, can make an entire load of finished compost to be rejected if it is missed during the initial screening process.
- Know the numbers: The chasing-arrows symbol doesn’t always mean recycling—it depends on the number inside the arrows. Numbers 1 through 6 represent pure plastic resins and may be recyclable in your area. Number 7 and number 7 other often represent a blend of resins, rendering the product nonrecyclable. However, number 7 PLA is a plant-based resin, allowing this product to be composted. Product manufacturers will sometimes add “compostable” to the product and packaging as an easy indicator for consumers.
- Each piece is unique: Be aware of each component of a whole product. A cup might be compostable, but the straw might be trash, and each should be put in its proper receptacle. Similarly, uneaten food should be removed from wrappings, and each should be placed in its respective bin.
- Stay relevant: Guidelines change fairly regularly, which is not controlled by CU’s in-house facilities team, but is instead dictated by the people purchasing the compost and waste. To stay up to date, refer to the Boulder County, Eco Cycle or CU Boulder Environmental Center’s websites.
- Landfills are not compost-centric: Compost piles need proper nitrogen, carbon, water and microorganisms to become a valuable, working resource. Compost fields allow for this transformation, while landfills hinder it. As von Bleichert remarks, “Compostable items are a valuable resource, but if you treat it like trash, that’s how it will end up.”
While composting continues to become available across campus, the environmental experts at CU Boulder will continue to challenge current practices and question what is possible. As von Bleichert notes, there is value in curiosity and inquiry: “Among recycle experts, the saying used to be ‘when in doubt, throw it out.’ But that’s the great thing about working at a university, we’re kind of a living laboratory. So the saying really should be ‘when in doubt, ask a question.’”
For more information about composting on campus, or contacting Facilities Management about collaborative research projects, visit the Facilities Management composting information page.