Haskell Indian Nations University’s ecoAmbassadors Bolster Composting and Waste Reduction

By Travis Robinett

Not long ago, a student group called the ecoAmbassadors at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., set out to enhance the university’s composting system with the help of an EPA partnership and grant assistance through EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program. I recently had the pleasure to see firsthand the successful implementation of these students’ hard work.

Haskell student Steven Peña asks about composting methods at a recent meeting between students, EPA Region 7 and KDHE at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Liz Blackburn, EPA tribal solid waste coordinator (right), is helping Haskell build a composting program from the ground up.

Haskell student Steven Peña asks about composting methods at a recent meeting between students, EPA Region 7 and KDHE at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Liz Blackburn, EPA tribal solid waste coordinator (right), is helping Haskell build a composting program from the ground up.

Haskell University has improved its composting system this semester, with support from EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Liz Blackburn, tribal solid waste coordinator with EPA Region 7’s Air and Waste Management Division, set up a meeting recently between Haskell students and Arthur Fink, KDHE composting expert, who was consulted on their plan. He explained how best to monitor and adjust the pile, helping waste break down into healthy compost. Food waste collection for the new system began in early March 2017.

Region 7 has assisted students in bringing composting to Haskell since 2015, building on previous joint efforts from a Memorandum of Agreement between EPA and the university. Blackburn said she’s proud to continue strengthening that partnership.

KDHE’s Arthur Fink gives expert advice to Haskell students on their composting plan recently. He’s standing beside wooden pallets for holding food waste as it breaks down, allowing airflow through the compost pile. The oxygen keeps food waste from decomposing in anaerobic conditions and emitting methane.

KDHE’s Arthur Fink (right) gives expert advice to Haskell students on their composting plan recently. He’s standing beside wooden pallets for holding food waste as it breaks down, allowing airflow through the compost pile. The oxygen keeps food waste from decomposing in anaerobic conditions and emitting methane.

“It’s exciting, because I think improving waste management is the best way to target pollution prevention and reduction,” she said.

In 2015, Haskell’s ecoAmbassadors set out to improve the school’s food-waste management with grant assistance through EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program. The composting system is a major piece of their waste reduction plan, which arose after fall 2015 assessments at Haskell’s dining hall showed how much food could be composted.

Haskell started composting shortly afterward with a one-bin system, but the students wanted to improve their methods. So they sought out ideas from a variety of places, including EPA and nearby Tribal Nations.

A compost thermometer shows the temperature under the surface. Compost piles can get hot. If the pile reaches about 140 degrees, the heat will kill most pathogens and denature any seeds. If it dips below 120 degrees, and food isn’t broken down, that’s the time to turn and mix the compost.

A compost thermometer shows the temperature under the surface. Compost piles can get hot. If the pile reaches about 140 degrees, the heat will kill most pathogens and denature any seeds. If it dips below 120 degrees, and food isn’t broken down, that’s the time to turn and mix the compost.

Based on what they learned, students built three adjacent bins with reused untreated wood pallets. The pallets allow for airflow, which keeps the compost from producing methane. Having three bins allows for older piles to break down while a new one begins.

According to EPA’s composting website, it takes anywhere from two months to two years for food waste to become dark, nutrient-rich compost. Fink said to help it break down, one key aspect to focus on is temperature. He brought a long composting thermometer, which measures the temperature underneath the pile’s surface.

“At 140 degrees Fahrenheit, most pathogens will be destroyed,” Fink said. “It also denatures any seeds.”

KDHE's Arthur Fink explains the benefits of adding the proper amount of wood chips to the compost pile recently at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. The wood draws moisture from the decaying food and helps it break down, though it shouldn’t be too dry when added to the pile.

Fink explains the benefits of adding the proper amount of wood chips to the compost pile. The wood draws moisture from the decaying food and helps it break down, but it shouldn’t be too dry when added to the pile.

If the temperature drops to 120 degrees and the waste hasn’t broken down yet, he said it’s time to turn the pile.

One of the big benefits of composting and diverting food, Fink said, is that food takes up a lot of landfill space and is heavy to transport. Also in landfills, food often breaks down without oxygen, giving off methane as a byproduct.

Steven Peña, a student in Haskell’s American Indian Studies Program, said he hopes this effort is successful enough that in two to three years, the university can build something more permanent with concrete.

“Also, composting is something you can use at home,” Peña said. “We’re hoping people here take this habit with them.”

About the Author: Travis Robinett has been a Student Intern at EPA Region 7 since June 2016. He is a second-year graduate student at the University of Kansas (KU), working toward a master’s degree in environmental assessment, and holds two bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English from KU. Travis has a passion for sustainability, public service, teaching, volunteering, and the great outdoors.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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Feed People, Not the Garbage

By Jenn DeRose, Green Dining Alliance

America wastes a lot of food. It has been estimated that 40 percent of food in this country gets tossed every year. If you’re wondering how to interpret that number, imagine taking nearly half of every meal you eat and dumping it directly in the garbage. Now imagine 318 million of your neighbors doing exactly the same thing.

Food garbageWasting that much food translated into 37 million tons of garbage in 2013, garbage that could’ve had a different fate as nourishment for hungry people. One in seven Americans are food insecure, which means they do not know where their next meal will come from, if they get a next meal.

The Green Dining Alliance (GDA) has always encouraged our member restaurants to minimize their food waste by reducing portion sizes and composting food waste. So when we heard that EPA was co-leading a new initiative to reduce U.S. food waste by 50 percent by 2030, we had to get involved. The GDA joined EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge as an Endorser, promoting the challenge by suggesting our members to join up as Participants.

Food Recovery Challenge Participants are given tools to measure how much food they’ve saved from landfills, including ways to measure how much they’ve reduced their environmental footprint. They are taught to use the Food Recovery Hierarchy as a template for how to best reduce their food waste.

Food Recovery HierarchyWe have a few food-reduction superheroes in our membership. For example, one Asian restaurant has an all-you-can-eat buffet with a twist. It is served Dim Sum style – you are offered small portions of everything on the menu. If you want more, you have to ask for it. You can have as much as you like, but you don’t get more than you need, reducing the waste that is typical of buffets.

We are also proud of our members who compost, which diverts more waste from the landfill and reduces more methane (greenhouse gas emissions) than those who are only recycling. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Luckily, reducing food waste in your own home is easy. You can use the Food Recovery Hierarchy to get ideas for best practices, like buying less food. Start an audit or mental checklist of the foods you end up throwing away. Do broccoli or potatoes always seem to go bad before you get to cooking them? Consider buying less to start with, or freezing meals and ingredients for later – that’s “source reduction.”

Let your nose check for the freshness of items with expiration dates for which there are no national guidelines (except for baby formula). These dates are set by industry to ensure that customers buy only the very freshest products. This practice unfortunately contributes greatly to food waste, as customers fear that products past the “best by” or “sell by” dates might harm them.

Home compost Bin

Home compost bin

Home composting is also an easy way to keep food out of landfills. Start a pile in your backyard for eggshells, coffee grounds, vegetable trimmings and more.

Food makes up 18 percent of the waste in landfills, contributing 18 percent of our methane emissions. Small steps can make a big difference when fighting the scourge of wasted food. Do your part by visiting GDA restaurants, asking more restaurants to compost, composting at home, ignoring “best by” labels, buying only what you can eat, and eating all you buy.

If America is to cut its food waste in half by 2030, and meet EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge goal, more individuals and industries will have to get aboard the food waste recovery train. Let’s all do our part!

About the Author: Jenn DeRose is program manager of the Green Dining Alliance, a program of St. Louis Earth Day. The GDA is a certification program for restaurants to assess and improve their sustainable practices, including reducing their waste, water, and carbon footprint. Jenn has doubled the GDA’s size in less than a year, now at over 100 members. Jenn is a writer and a LEED Green Associate, and is earning a bachelor’s degree in sustainability at Washington University. She enjoys camping, foraging, birdwatching, and cycling.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Learning the 4 R’s: Kansas City Area Students Strive to Reduce Food Waste

By Shari L. Wilson, Project Central

Kansas City students help divert food waste from the landfill

Kansas City students help divert food waste from the landfill

About 95 percent of the food we throw away ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. That is a huge problem for our country. Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great people to help schools in the Kansas City metro area understand more about food waste and what they can do to reduce it.

I really enjoy teaching the 4 R’s – refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. “Refuse” means saying no to accepting unnecessary packaging, such as plastic bags. Kids get it. I also involve custodial and kitchen staff in the process. My focus is to help the school divert waste from the landfill, while remaining focused on not adding more work tasks to school staff.

Through a grant program funded by the Mid-America Regional Council’s Solid Waste Management District and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, five schools composted more than 50 tons of waste last year, and so far this year, 13 schools have composted more than 36 tons.

A few of the schools I’ve been working with include Trailwoods Elementary, Rogers Elementary, and James Elementary, which are close to East High School in Kansas City, Mo. It’s the first time some of the students have been exposed to environmental education. Teachers and students are enthusiastic, and kids are sometimes leading the efforts in the lunchroom. These students have worked hard to become good environmental stewards.

Elementary students learn about ways to reduce food waste, including composting

Elementary students learn about ways to reduce food waste, including composting

I’ve enjoyed working with Jensen Adams, energy and sustainability manager, Kansas City Public Schools. He is an enthusiastic environmental partner, and totally engaged in getting kids involved in environmental protection.

My colleague in these efforts is Environmental Scientist Gary Kannenberg. We have worked to engage students in learning about food waste in the lunchroom, composting and waste diversion, and also with EPA Region 7 staff who have provided technical assistance, utilizing data and taking into consideration overall food costs at schools.

Joining EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge (FRC) brings many benefits, including:

  • Reducing your environmental footprint
  • Helping your community by donating nutritious, quality, unused food to feed hungry people
  • Saving money by purchasing less and lowering waste disposal fees
  • Gaining visibility by having your name listed on EPA’s website
  • Receiving recognition through awards and social media
  • Getting free technical assistance in the form of webinars, an online database, and resources to help you plan, implement and track your activities
  • Getting a free climate change report to highlight your positive effect on the environment

My hope is to engage more schools in food waste education, and for schools to consider joining the Food Recovery Challenge. Currently, about 20 schools in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska have signed up for the FRC. The ultimate goal is to make food recovery part of the culture and curriculum in schools, and part of the students’ home environment.

About the Author: Shari L. Wilson founded Project Central to provide services primarily in the areas of education, environment, healthy communities, and the arts. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in history and philosophy from Washburn University, and a Master of Arts in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Kansas.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Combating Wasted Food: Good for the Environment, Good for Your Bottom Line

Mathy Stanislaus Mathy Stanislaus

Here’s a really smart way for businesses – from restaurants to grocery store chains to hotels and more – to boost their bottom lines: Reduce wasted food.

This week we’re holding a week of action on wasted food. It’s all about sustainability – environmentally and economically – and how we meet the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet the needs of tomorrow.

In 2012, the United States threw away about 35 million tons of food – more than any other type of waste going to landfills. When that wasted food gets to the landfill, it rots, generating methane gas – one of the most potent contributors to climate change. All of this waste also squanders the water, energy, nutrients and money used to transport that food.

At the same time, many Americans don’t know where their next meal will come from. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that, in 2012, 14 percent of households regularly did not have enough food to live active, healthy lifestyles.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.