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Composting programs expanding at Ohio State

Students involved as participants, researchers, ambassadors

In a major expansion of its zero waste efforts, The Ohio State University is taking composting well beyond dining halls and its well-known Ohio Stadium zero waste program. New options exist for students in residence halls, staff in research labs and any Buckeyes living off campus to join in the composting fun.

Beginning this year, composting is available in common areas of residence halls. Interested students are even able to compost in their own rooms.

In residence halls, Ohio State has distributed more than 100 composting bins to be placed in common areas and nearly 90 students have requested bins for their rooms. The goal is to have bins in 1,000 rooms this year.

Additionally, a campus drop-off program allows students, faculty and staff who live off campus to bring compost to the university. More than a thousand Buckeyes have signed up to participate, joining a composting program that has already diverted more than 114 tons of food waste from landfills since July, supporting Ohio State’s zero waste sustainability goal and reducing methane emissions.  

“Ohio State is leading the region on this,” said Mary Leciejewski, Ohio State’s zero waste manager working within Facilities Operations and Development. “We’re one of the largest waste generators within Franklin County, so if we’re able to test different options and pilot different programs on campus, they can then be replicated across the region and other universities.”

About one-third of the waste generated at Ohio State is organic matter like food scraps and animal bedding from research labs. Organic matter in landfills is the third-leading human-related cause of methane emissions in the United States, Leciejewski adds. Methane contributes more to climate change than carbon dioxide, but composting breaks down organic matter, turning it into soil fertilizer.

The university has been composting since 2011 and included zero waste among Ohio State’s sustainability goals in 2015.

“The goal is to divert 90% of waste away from landfills through recycling, composting, reuse and waste prevention,” said Leciejewski.

“Right now, in Franklin County, we don’t have a large-scale food waste composting facility, but residents of the county have expressed a high interest,” said Molly Kathleen, zero waste coordinator. “[The compost drop-off program] provides that outlet. In addition to diverting the waste and helping more people learn about waste diversion, it demonstrates to regional leaders a growing demand from residents for more food waste solutions.”

More than 90 students have already volunteered to be peer-to-peer ambassadors for the composting program. They will answer questions about composting, help classmates utilize their bins and encourage others to participate. The volunteer efforts are supported by Green Scope Consulting, a sustainability startup launched by a recent Ohio State President’s Prize winner.

“I’ve been so impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and their strategic thinking,” Leciejewski said. “It really is a student-driven initiative.”

Students have worked on composting program ideas in the classroom as well.

Last spring, 18 students had the chance to take a class taught by President Kristina M. Johnson and Jay Kasey, senior vice president of the Office of Administration and Planning. The class was called “Pathways to Net Zero Carbon Emissions.”

Students were tasked with devising a way to reduce carbon emissions on campus by 500 tons. Olivia Reed, Sonam Rustagi and Max Sanchez focused on eliminating food waste through processes like composting for their project. Composting can reduce methane emissions, which are converted into carbon equivalents to measure greenhouse gas emissions.

Discussing their research with President Johnson was a unique experience, the students agreed.

“It was really cool to see [President Johnson’s] engineering mind at work,” Rustagi said.

“I realized how passionate she was about the things we’re passionate about,” Sanchez said. “It was neat, seeing that shared interest. With her drive, she pushed us to work a little bit harder.”

Leciejewski and her team spoke to the students throughout the semester. Given Ohio State’s prominence in the region, she wanted them to understand the importance of solutions for the larger community.

Sanchez said he was excited to research solutions that could be used on a larger scale.

“The impact that we could have on other universities and other institutions in general could be great,” he said. “I want to set the precedent for other universities to work on their sustainability practices.”

To learn more about composting and zero waste efforts at Ohio State, listen to Episode 4 of the City of Ohio State podcast featuring a sit-down interview with Leciejewski.

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