Organic Waste Recycling on Campus: A Student’s Journey

Organic Waste Recycling on Campus: A Student’s Journey

University of Redlands students are concerned with the amount of food that is wasted on campus and why the university is not in compliance with California legislation that requires organic waste recycling. Serena Dudas, a senior at the University of Redlands, provides insight on this complex and institutionalized issue.


Serena Dudas, an environmental policy and management major and spatial studies minor, became interested in recycling and organic waste recycling during a semester abroad internship in Costa Rica. Costa Rica’s booming ecotourism market has made them a leader in renewable energy and other sustainable technologies, but they struggle with the same issue the United States does — developing infrastructure to keep up with biodegradable waste.


There are two main processes for recycling organic waste — anaerobic and aerobic decomposition. Anaerobic digestion is a decomposition process of organic material that occurs in the absence of oxygen. Naturally occurring bacteria are added to an enclosed structure where they break down the materials. This system captures all methane produced and the combination of the released gases, called biogas, is a renewable energy source waiting to be harnessed. Aerobic digestion is the decomposition process of organic materials with oxygen present. Composting is a form of aerobic digestion, but it often has greenhouse gas emissions when it is not well managed. The moisture and temperature must be checked regularly, and proper aeration is required to ensure the material does not overheat and spontaneously combust. Composted waste aerobically only produces fertilizer but it requires a lower capital investment than an anaerobic digestion facility.  Anaerobic digestion facilities are preferred for recycling food waste because they allow for complete treatment of emissions, produce renewable energy, and create fertilizer which can act as a soil amendment.


So, what waste stream and food waste reduction measures is the University of Redlands already taking? Bon Appetit, the food provider at the university, works to reduce food waste mainly in terms of portion sizing — a certain amount of food is given unless the client asks for more. Additionally, food scraps are reused in soup stocks, food is donated before holiday breaks to family services in Redlands, and some produce is sourced from local farms and the SURF garden.


Pre-consumed waste, like potato peels and watermelon rinds, is composted in a small scale semi-aerobic system at the Sustainable University of Redlands Farm.  All emissions from this pile are untreated, and it can be assumed that some methane gas is emitted from anaerobic pockets in the composting pile.


Based on information gathered by senior Elise Eifler on a waste per day characterization from Bon Appetit in 2016, Dudas produced an estimation of the potential carbon footprint from food waste solely at the University of Redlands. 71,136 pounds of food waste is produced annually, and under anaerobic conditions this waste has the potential to generate 6,260 kg of methane gas.  Dudas calculated that if all of this waste was recycled in an anaerobic digester and the UoR used the energy produced from it, we could save over $1,160 in electricity costs annually.  The City of Redlands landfill receives all of the waste from the University of Redlands, and they have landfill gas collection technology to collect and treat gas emitted from waste. Dudas explains that landfills have a gas collection efficiency rate, which averages around 75 percent nationwide.  To conservatively estimate the impact of landfilling the University of Redlands food waste, Dudas assumed that 10 percent of gases escape, meaning about 626 kg of methane gas will be released, without treatment, from the City of Redlands landfill every year. This has the same impact on climate change as burning over 17,000 pounds of coal. Additionally, the cumulative impacts from the continuous food waste deposition into the City landfill every year make the University of Redlands’ ecological footprint even greater.


California has created integrated waste disposal programs for the past couple of decades and we are now seeing aggressive legislation dealing with waste reduction. In 2013 CA governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 341 into law, requiring a seventy-five percent reduction in landfilled municipal solid waste from businesses and commercial entities.  This meant that businesses would need to reduce or recycle the majority of the waste they generate. The majority of the waste stream in California is organic, meaning it is biodegradable, which makes it the easiest class of waste to divert from landfills for recycling.  According to Assembly Bill 1826, if more than four cubic yards (equating to the size of one big green dumpster) of solid waste is produced by a business per week, all organic waste generated by the business must be recycled. Both AB 341 and AB 1826 have tiered thresholds, increasing the recycling mandates for businesses on a year to year basis.  This requires businesses to create an action plan to stay in compliance.


Under AB 1826, the University of Redlands is mandated by the City of Redlands and the State of California to recycle all organic waste generated in Irvine Commons.  While the university recycles green waste and recycles a small amount of organic waste at the SURF garden, a lot of work needs to be done to recycle all food waste generated on campus. This recycling program should have been established in 2016 in preparation for this stringent regulation.  Now, the University of Redlands could be immediately subject to City code violations and subsequent fines up which may account to $500 per day. The City of Redlands is working on establishing an ordinance to enforce this law and has been very lenient on the university since it broke compliance on Jan. 1 in 2019.  The law clearly puts a lot of stress on businesses and commercial entities.


There are multiple avenues the university can take for developing a recycling system. One option is for the University of Redlands to self-haul organic waste. This will require separation and transportation of waste on behalf of the university. Additional staff will be needed to transport waste to a recycling facility and investments in garbage trucks is likely. Although the upfront costs for independent waste recycling will be high, universities like Chapman University have found that intensive planning and infrastructure pays off and can save the institution money over a long-term period.


Realistically, joining the city’s organic waste collection and recycling program is the fastest way for the university to begin recycling organic waste. One of the largest barriers to joining the city’s plan is that the university lacks the infrastructure to store waste in between pick up times. The city would only be able to pick up waste 1-3 times per week, meaning that organic waste could be sitting somewhere for up to a week at a time. Concerns about odor and insects arise during the hotter months when waste decomposes more quickly. If the university chooses to partner with the city, the city of Redlands has control over market prices and the city project is increasing in price. No matter what route the university chooses, upfront logistics and planning regarding waste separation by students will be necessary.


The city of Redlands municipality is behind in developing infrastructure, ordinances, and collection plans for mandated organics recycling. Currently, the city is working to add anaerobic digestion to the city landfill and wants to process the waste themselves rather than using a third party, as they presently are.  The Senior Recreation Center in Redlands houses the city’s piloted zero-waste facility. Like the city’s entire organic waste collection program, the zero-waste facility is still being fine-tuned. The largest challenge faced is contamination. Dudas researched contamination at the facility and found that even with excessive labeling and a lunch monitor, waste is not placed in proper receptacles resulting in contaminants needing to be removed.  


Dudas hopes that an organic waste recycling program will be implemented this summer. However, this process has been dragging on for a while and she has not seen any results in establishing an organic recycling program since she first began her research project in September 2018.  She believes that the university does not have a sense of urgency about establishing a program to recycle all food waste generated in Irvine Commons, and thinks that this will quickly change after the university is served daily fines for violating State law. She hopes that her research on food waste recycling and recommendations on internal operations improvements for the university will expedite compliance with law AB 1826.  One reason for the inaction is the immense amount of work and planning which is involved in building a system for organic waste recycling when limited infrastructure currently exists. Despite the undisputable challenges, changes need to be made to existing infrastructure to comply with California legislation.


The issue-attention cycle at a university makes it difficult for students to make an impact; once an individual or a group identifies an issue, connects to resources to solve it, establishes a game plan, develops the tools, and is about to influence the change, the school year ends and everyone goes on summer vacation.  Or, momentum hiccups through that process and prolongs it, which can mean a single student-led project can take anywhere from several months to several years until completion. It is important to realize that students have many commitments and are so passionate advancing the University of Redlands that they will invest the little time and energy they have in addressing shortcomings. After Dudas graduates this year, she expects that her project will, unfortunately, sit on a shelf. She notes that it will probably be referenced and recommended to people who raise questions about recycling and composting, but few will take the time to read it and even fewer will be in a position where they have the authority to make the changes. Optimistically, she hopes that President Kuncel, Roger Celini—head of facilities management, and Melinda Sanchez—associate director of operations at facilities management, who are all aware of her capstone’s intention to help the University of Redlands, will be able to use this as a resource to increase sustainability and achieve compliance with State law.   


While this slow system of change is disheartening, Dudas advises other students who are looking to make an impact on campus to stay passionate and optimistic.  When Dudas originally began to ask questions about the university’s compliance with State law, she was shut down and told that the university was following the laws.  Undefeated, she visited city hall to ask questions about recycling programs with the city, met with managers for the city landfill to ask questions, and consulted with facilities management on current practices and plans.  The tenacity was what moved the project forward. Dudas is very grateful to the support she received from the Department of Facilities Management and the City of Redlands and attributes success in collaborating with these entities to a clear mission statement and a genuine desire to make the future better.  For everyone she consulted with, her project would in some way help, whether it would save them money by avoiding fines, take work off their shoulders, or assist them in reaching goals. For any student looking to make change, she recommends that they make the people who can authorize changes their best friends.  View the university as an organism which you can work with to achieve a positive change together, as opposed to an institution which does not listen or respond to your voice. If you feel as though the latter is true for you, work hard to identify why they may not be responding favorably and establish a new game plan.  If you have an idea that can change the life of one student, or better the world in one way, it is worth hearing and people will help you as long as you present it a way where they feel as though they are needed and appreciated.


Photo contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer Caillie Roach. 

One thought on “Organic Waste Recycling on Campus: A Student’s Journey

  1. Serena, I applaud your diligence, tenacity and passion in pursuing this effort. I sincerely hope that movement toward a sustainable, realistic, and environmentally-sound resolution continues. Thank you for your clarity, thoroughness and optimism in laying the foundation for that solution!

Comments are closed.