Trash Talking: Care to compost?

Composting is available to all UNO residents for free yet not many residents are utilizing this amenity.

Jenna Miller stands next to the Hillside Solutions composting bins. Photo by Kaitlyn Kelly

Everyone has a bin that magically disappears once a week. In that bin, there may be carpet your cat puked on, a lamp that stopped working ten years ago or a whole pile of food that you just couldn’t finish. But what happens to that trash after it is taken? It does not go to a magical trash land, nor does it immediately turn into dirt after a few months. In reality, a single glass bottle takes about 1 million years to break down. Some food waste can take 10-20 years or more. However, there are other options available that can turn your brimming trash can into a nearly vacant one. These options are recycling and composting.

Composting is a natural process of recycling organic matter or anything that comes from the earth and turning it into valuable, nutrient-rich, soil. UNO is a partner with Hillside Solutions, the Omaha metro’s only commercial composting company. This year both Dodge and Scott Housing residents can compost on campus for free.

The composting program was developed by students in 2021, and it takes the university closer to achieving the goal of being a zero-waste campus by 2030. Courtney Brink, the president of Sustain UNO, a student organization that focuses on sustainability, worked over the summer to expand the composting program to Scott residents as well.

Although Brink was successful on one front, she still feels alone in spreading the word about the program and increasing composting on campus.

“I think the bins on campus is a step in the right direction, although I don’t feel like the university is supporting me in spreading the word about it,” Brink said. “We used to have composting bins in the cafeteria on Scott campus, but that was going so well, and they had to be picked up so often, that they stopped doing it.”

As of now, composting on campus is available to Scott and Dodge housing residents, and food service employees in the Milo Bail cafeteria.

One student who utilizes the free composting for residents is Jenna Miller. Miller has been composting for about two years ever since she realized how much methane gas landfills produce. In that time Miller has created an efficient system for her composting.

“I have a four-gallon bucket and I invest in biodegradable trash bags because I think it’s worth it. I line the bucket with the biodegradable liner and I put all my food scraps in it. Between me and my roommates, it gets full about once a week. It also has a lid which is very helpful to keep all the smells out from our apartment,” Miller said.

For residents to opt into the composting program, they must fill out a form located on Presence or scan the QR code on fliers around campus. Residents must complete a 15-minute training either online or in person before they are granted a code to access the composting bins.

UNO produces about 200 pounds of compost a week. Once the compost is transported to the industrial composting facility, it sits for a month or two to compost down, cures for a year, gets filtered to separate the contaminants and then goes out to the Omaha metro area once more.

“Every time UNO composts with us, it’s redistributing those nutrients back into the Nebraskan soils. This allows people to grow things without needing to use fertilizers and chemicals, Hillside Solutions Director Brent Crampton said. “Anyplace where things grow, you can use compost as a multivitamin to help it grow better and stronger.”

As efforts to mitigate climate change grow, Crampton believes composting will become a societal norm in the future, just as recycling has become the norm today.

“Everyone understands why we recycle; humans make things, and we reuse those things that humans make,” Crampton said. “Composting is nature making things, and we’re going to reuse those things that nature makes. Composting is just as important, just a different type of material.”

Once you throw away your trash it ends up in a landfill. Landfills are methane-producing factories and when compostables like food waste go into landfills they don’t break down into dirt. Instead, all the trash is covered up with a layer of filter and plastic which prevents oxygen from getting through to help break down food waste. Because of this, a head of lettuce can take up to 10-20 years to break down while distributing methane gas in the process. Composting solves these problems.

“It’s not just UNO, but it’s every school system that hasn’t properly taught students how to take care of their trash. It’s the companies that are producing the items that we throw away,” Brink said. “The problem is so much bigger than me.”

Many students like Brink hope to see the composting program grow and flourish among the campus community in the future. Only then, with enough group effort towards sustainability, will UNO be able to reach its zero-waste goal by 2030.

“If UNO is going to do that [reach their zero-waste goal] they’re going to really have to expand the amount of composting, recycling and overall waste production that they’re doing now,” Crampton said. “We’re optimistic that we’ll be expanding our partnership with them soon. If you live on campus, you should utilize an amenity you have, which is composting.”