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Smells Of Sustainability Across Campus As OPP Prepares For The Spring

No matter the weather, springtime in Happy Valley is here, and for Penn State that means the application of mulch and compost across campus. Although the smell of mulch may bring displeasure to the noses of most students, to Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant (OPP), the odors bring a sense of satisfaction. That satisfaction comes from the fact that Penn State held a 61.63 percent diversion from landfill rate of waste in 2015, ranking it as one of the leaders among large universities.

Many students may only look at the compost and mulch as merely a nuisance to their nose, but in reality, the process of producing the compost and mulch is a lengthy, complicated process that directly affects nearly every student at University Park.

Nadine Davitt, supervisor of solid waste management for OPP, heads the department for managing compost. Alex Novak, manager of communications for Penn State’s Sustainability Institute and OPP, explained the necessary requirements needed to make a valuable compost for the university. “What Nadine does is this really interesting balance of how much food waste we bring in from the residence halls, from the dining commons, and the Nittany Lion Inn,” Novak said, “and then combine that with leaves and plant debris.”

Novak explained that effective compost needs to have the right balance of nutrients necessary for plant survival and to be an effective fertilizer. “When you make compost, it’s a balance of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water,” Novak said, “and if you have too little or too much of one or the other, it changes how the decomposition occurs and how the finished product amends the soil.”

After explaining the value of compost as a soil amendment, Novak described a much more pressing issue to not only Penn State, but to the world. Novak explained the research of garbologist William Rathje, who coined the term garbologist after he spent decades studying what happens when people throw things away. Novak described a study where Rathje uncovered trash from the 1950s in a landfill and found startling results. “Because it’s an anaerobic environment — there’s no oxygen — he was pulling out fresh produce, lettuce, carrots, and newspapers that looked like they had just been printed.”

Novak used this as a segue into the issue of keeping as much waste out of landfills as possible. This is one of the main factors in making Penn State’s recycling program so efficient. “A value of compost is that it diverts what would be food waste away from the landfill,” Novak said. “This notion that when we put things into landfills they decompose is a total fallacy because there’s no air. If we can take the food waste and not put it in the landfill, you’re really reducing the amount that’s going to the landfill.”

With the addition of food waste to the mulch and compost increasing over the last few years, Penn State has drastically reduced the amount of food waste going into a landfill. In fact, 2015 produced some impressive numbers to OPP about its recycling efficiency. “The total number of tons of waste actually went up by 800 tons, but we’re recycling more of it,” Novak said. “We are currently at a 61.63 percent diversion rate. That is an improvement of five percent over last year which was 56.41 percent.”

Novak explained that the most avoidable waste product added to landfills each year is food waste. “Food waste is a killer,” Novak said. “It’s a killer in the whole country. Three quarters of the food produced is lost, is not eaten. It goes from being grown to typically going to a landfill.”

If you consider the large amounts of agricultural land in the United States alone without even taking into account imported food, that wasted product by itself is a disgusting amount. Adding in imported goods only increases that total. “There’s stuff that’s left in the fields that rot, there’s stuff that spoils on the way to the grocery store, there’s stuff that the grocery store doesn’t sale that goes to waste,” Novak said, “but then the biggest culprit is that we buy it but don’t eat it.”

On a campus the size of University Park, wasted food can be a major problem. OPP instituted campus-wide composting a few years ago to cut down on the food waste, but that doesn’t mean everybody is doing their part. “The total recycling percentage at the university is 61 percent,” Novak said. “Housing, the students, are recycling at 20 percent. There were 1,300 tons of trash from housing in 2015, and 369 tons of recycling. That’s 369 tons of 9,214 tons that the university was doing, so it’s a tiny fraction.”

Novak said that the best way for students to cut down on their waste in the dorms is through composting and reducing their usage of products. As the numbers OPP has now stand, if Housing were to recycle at a 35 percent diversion rate, the total university recycling percentage would be 63.29 percent. If Housing were to recycle at 85 percent, the total university recycling percentage would be 69.16 percent, according to the numbers given by OPP — Novak and OPP believe this is attainable, but only with cooperation from, and education to, the students. Novak said the biggest part of reducing waste is reducing the use or consumption of products. “You see that triangle of reduce, reuse, recycle, recycle should be your last effort,” Novak said. “Reduction is the number one thing if you actually want to make a difference.”

As OPP’s recycling programs continue to grow and evolve and as the public becomes more knowledgeable on the subject of reducing and recycling, Penn State hopes to act as a model for other universities to follow. OPP has proven that reducing the school’s waste and safely recycling it into the environment is possible with cooperation and education.

The smells of mulch and compost fill the State College air every day, and though some people may not enjoy the smell, the process is a unique one that students should be proud of. Not many large universities can boast a 61 percent diversion from landfill rate, but Penn State can because of the efforts of composting and recycling put forth by OPP. Next time you throw something away, think about these sustainability efforts, and support them. By doing so, we can all live in a healthier and cleaner world.

About the Author

Matt Coleman

Matt Coleman is a writer for Onward State. His hometown is North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, a little under an hour from Pittsburgh. He is a sophomore majoring in Natural Resource Engineering in Biological Engineering. Please e-mail questions and comments to [email protected] Also, follow him on Twitter @cole_man2.

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