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.

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.

Waste and Materials Tracking Now Available in EPA’s ENERGY STAR® Portfolio Manager®

Janet McCabe Janet McCabe
Mathy Stanislaus Mathy Stanislaus

By Mathy Stanislaus and Janet McCabe

While you might not think about buildings as polluters, the places where we work, shop and learn offer a significant opportunity to save energy, save water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce waste. The good news is that for many buildings, measuring and tracking energy and water use has become standard operating procedure.

Waste and materials are another story, however. Materials can include items such as furniture, construction materials, and equipment. Up to this point, there hasn’t been an easy or consistent way to track waste in commercial buildings and manufacturing facilities. That’s a problem since these facilities are responsible for nearly half of the 167 million tons of waste that wind up in incinerators or landfills each year.

Material recovery and waste reduction are essential components to the productive and sustainable use of materials across their entire life cycle to conserve resources, reduce waste, slow climate change and minimize the environmental impacts of the materials we use.  EPA’s 2009 report, Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices, shows that approximately 42 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are associated with materials management. Since new and existing buildings include materials such as furniture, construction materials and equipment, buildings represent a good opportunity for improvement and GHG reductions in America.

That’s why two years ago EPA began collaborating with leading building owners, managers, and waste haulers to identify key metrics and waste management options to add to ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, the Agency’s popular online energy and water measurement and tracking tool.

Portfolio Manager is actually the industry standard energy measurement and tracking tool for commercial buildings in the United States and Canada. More than 450,000 U.S. buildings, representing over 45 percent of the nation’s commercial building space, have been benchmarked in Portfolio Manager, as well as more than 10,000 buildings in Canada. These buildings are already using the tool to benchmark and improve performance, prioritize investments, and verify reductions in energy and water use across these tens of thousands of buildings.

We’re proud to debut the result of this collaboration. Portfolio Manager now includes a new waste and materials tracking feature. It’s designed in a way that allows for flexibility and basic comparative analysis, recognizing that the type and quality of available waste and materials management data vary widely.

With the addition of waste and materials tracking in Portfolio Manager, building owners and managers can now apply their successful energy management techniques holistically to reduce not only waste, but also the associated carbon footprint that results from landfill decomposition and incineration, as well as the costs of disposal.

Historically, waste management activities haven’t been well measured and tracked in commercial buildings.  However, as we learned from our experience with energy tracking, standardized measurement is the cornerstone of building management practices that drives improvement.

It’s incredibly rewarding when we can work together with businesses and organizations to offer new tools and capabilities that not only help them save money, but also help their communities remain economically competitive and support a healthy environment. We can’t wait to see what innovations lie ahead as owners and managers tap the same wealth of knowledge and creativity they’ve used to reduce energy, water, and greenhouse gas emissions, and apply it to the important issue of managing and reducing waste and materials. To learn more, visit www.energystar.gov/trackwaste.

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.