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Students help redesign campus composting, hope to limit contamination

| Alison Wagener

Composting is an important part of UW-Eau Claire’s commitment to sustainability. But last year, it became apparent that compost from receptacles in the Davies Center and the Riverview Café was becoming too contaminated with non-compostable waste to be useful.

“The issue with compost contamination is some of the contaminants within the compost that get sent off to the composting location don’t break down. They use that compost in gardens and in landscaping projects, and you don’t want people’s trash in that,” said Ethan Fuhrman, director of Student Senate’s Student Office of Sustainability. “It just messes with the entire composting process, too. It makes it much less efficient.”

Charles Farrell, director of University Centers, further explained that during the compost decomposition process, compost must be raked and screened for trash. Higher levels of contamination raise labor costs for the waste management company. If the compost is deemed to contain too much trash, it gets sent to the landfill, ultimately going against the intent to repurpose organic materials.

Fuhrman and other students involved in SOS, including former director Maria Delgado Gomez and summer director Meaghan Mulhern, met with Farrell and other university faculty members over the summer to brainstorm solutions.

What they came up with was a three-tiered approach that included changes to the compost bins themselves, straightforward signage, and an educational program geared towards students.

Currently, composting bins are available in the Davies Center and the Riverview Café. In both dining locations, the compost, recycling, and trash receptacles sit side-by-side. Before the redesign, they were indistinguishable when looking from the top. The team determined this to be a likely contributor to compost contamination, as students and others would toss their garbage into any one of the three available containers.

The redesign included adding hinged lids to the compost bins. It’s a small change, but Fuhrman said he hopes the lids will help distinguish compost bins from the others and help prevent unnecessary contamination.

“We think it will make a difference, because [the lids] give students more time to look down at the bin itself and the signage before they throw their trash in,” Fuhrman said.

The team also crafted helpful banners to be placed next to the most-used compost bins. They outline a short list of what can be composted and include pictures of compostable items used in both dining locations. Overall, the posters are being used to promote the message “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Encouraging people to throw away their waste instead of composting may seem counterintuitive. But Farrell said much of the compost contamination has been a result of students’ confusion of which items they could compost.


Rachel Kennedy, senior French and Environmental Public Health double major, serves on the UW-Eau Claire Compost Crew to help students think before they toss.

For example, the soup containers from the salad bar at the Davies Center Marketplace are compostable, but the soup containers from Erbert and Gerbert's are not. The Green Mountain brand paper coffee cups used within the Marketplace are compostable, but the Caribou brand cups from the Cabin are not. For this reason, they’ve chosen to leave these items off the poster.

“We’re going to ask students to compost fewer items, but we’re focusing on the things that have the most impact and food waste, which are the best things we can compost,” said Farrell.

Farrell added that this approach may cause the total volume of compost produced by UW-Eau Claire to go down, but the percentage of clean compost produced is likely to increase.

Lastly, the Student Office of Sustainability has implemented created the Compost Crew, a group of students educated on best composting practices. The Compost Crew will periodically stand next to each compost bin and help answer students’ questions about how to best sort their trash.

Fuhrman said the Student Office of Sustainability hopes that through prompting and education, students will become more conscious of the waste they produce and will start to care more about composting.

It’s a shift he thinks is achievable, but only if student participation in the project continues to be strong.

“I think it matters that there’s student input in the project because it’s ultimately a student issue,” Fuhrman said. “The problem comes from students not knowing what to do in terms of sorting their food waste. Because students are the vast majority of the users of these bins, the solutions need to come from the students themselves, which is what we’re hoping to accomplish.”