The Lumberjack

HSU compost goes to landfill

Katherine Rodriguez emptying the compost bucket into a larger bin. | Ahmed Al-Sakkaf

UPDATED: 6:00 p.m. on Oct. 16

More than six weeks worth of compost went to a landfill. That’s after the composting contract HSU had with the Local Worm Guy ended and wasn’t renewed. All compost materials which ends up in the compost BiobiN vessel will be sent to landfill, as there is no alternative in sight.

HSU bio bin located near the Jolly Giants Commons. | Ahmed Al-Sakkaf

Last year, the university signed a $14 thousand contract with The Local Worm Guy farm to divert all the food waste the campus generates. All campus-generated compostable material is deposited to the 20-cubic-yard composting bio bin that was installed a year ago near the Jolly Giant Commons. When the bin is close to full, it’s then hauled away by Recology Arcata to be dumped at the worm farm. The university pays Recology around $80 per haul.

Last August, the owner of the worm farm Lloyd Barker informed HSU that he wouldn’t renew the contract with the university.

“It’s probably one of the harder decisions that we’ve had to make as a business,” Barker said. “With the challenges we faced last year we’ve had to take a step back and look at exactly what we need in terms of our business development to be able to offer that service again.”

The volume and the type of material that is generated on campus is challenging from a composting perspective. The challenges his business was facing from the university’s material didn’t leave him an option.

Organic food wastes inside the bio bin. | Ahmed Al-Sakkaf

“HSU is really a big feather in someone’s cap, it’s a really important customer for us, but right now it’s really hard to offer them the service we want to be able to offer them,” Barker said.

The university has a small scale composting facility called the Earth Tub. The Earth Tub is run by Waste-Reduction & Resource Awareness Program. WRRAP compost food waste they collect from student-run coffee tables, departmental break rooms and zero waste events, food waste that is not sent to the biobin where the majority of the organic waste ends up.

For organic waste to compost, it requires a consistent balance of carbon to nitrogen ratio. The ratio is around 25 to 30 parts of carbon to every one part of nitrogen. The compost material generated on campus mainly consists of heavily water saturated food type materials with very little carbon. Besides the imbalanced ratio of carbon to nitrogen, the university’s compost material tends to have a lot of garbage in it, such as F’real milkshake cubs and other noncompostable plastic bags from dining kitchens.

Organic food wastes inside the bio bin. | Ahmed Al-Sakkaf

“We end up with a lot of those pre-made milkshakes in a little plastic cups. We end up with probably 50 of those milkshake containers, and up to 150 pieces of recycles and garbage from the cafeteria per load,” Barker said. “We’ll also end up with big bags of stuff from the back of the house. It caused us a lot of problems and issues along the way.”

Last year alone, the worm farm composted over 200 cubic yards of HSU’s material that weighed about 97 tons. The university paid a total of $64 per cubic yard to divert this food waste from landfill to compost.

HSU is mandated by California’s AB 1826 law to compost. The law currently requires businesses that generate four cubic yards or more of organic waste per week to arrange for organic waste recycling services. Organic waste includes green waste, landscape pruning and wood waste. The university generates over seven cubic yards of organic waste per week.

“We are a state agency. We need to be compliant with this law,” said Morgan King HSU’s Sustainability and Climate Action Analyst.

Neither the university nor the county has the infrastructure or the appropriate facilities to compost large amounts of organic waste. Until the county builds a facility that can accept HSU’s food wastes, the university has no option but to try to work with the local worm farmer to resume their agreement.

Katherine Rodriguez scraping off leftover food into a compost bucket. | Ahmed Al-Sakkaf

“We’re kinda stuck. We need to haul it out to someone else who is a professional and can compost it,” said King. “He [Barker] can’t take our stuff and there’s no one locally besides him that would take this amount of food waste.”

Both the university and The Local Worm Guy view this as a temporary setback until they are all ready to resume their cooperation and resume their work.

“The Local Worm Guy is working on his side to be in a better position to take our food waste, and on our side, we are working on making our material more acceptable,” said King.

Prior to signing this contract with the local worm farmer, HSU didn’t have a large-scale composting program in place. Madi Whaley, the WRRAP program manager, said that before last year parts of the food waste generated on campus was diverted to a local hog farmer for pigs to eat.

“It is unfortunate,” said Whaley. “It’s a real shame that the compost is going to the landfill instead of being diverted to a composting facility.”

HSU prides itself on having a great food recovery system. This past summer, HSU won the Innovative Waste Reduction Award at the California Higher Education Sustainability Conference. The composting program HSU had in place partnering with Barker was a significant factor in winning the award. A factor that isn’t in place now.