If one man's trash is another man's treasure, then UNC Charlotte's Student Union and Dining Services have found a way to turn food waste from over 2500 daily customers into a veritable gold mine for local community farms.
The installation of an industrial food pulper, one of several eco-friendly commitments made by the University community to support sustainability goals, turns solid food and paper products into environmentally-friendly compostable material while making a huge step in landfill waste reduction.
The pulper is a gigantic, gleaming steel apparatus - a futuristic-looking food disposal on steroids. Installed prior to the Student Union's opening in 2009, its task is to minimize organic food waste. It grinds up and extracts water from all stages of food waste (prep to post-meal scraps), reducing it by up to 85% of its original volume. What remains is a fine, semi-dry material that is completely compostable.
UNC Charlotte's pulper is one of only three similar machines operated by colleges and universities in North Carolina.
"We knew basic disposer systems were problematic," said Chartwells Executive Chef Roger Lademann. "We toured Johnson and Wales University and noticed they had an early version of the pulper system, so we asked our food service consultant about them and how they work. After learning that Davidson College also had a pulper system, Auxiliary Services Director Ray Galleno and I visited their campus for a tour. The rest is history."
UNC Charlotte's pulper condenses 485 pounds of waste daily during the normal academic year. That includes food waste from the meals of approximately 2700 customers coming through the doors of Crown Commons and Bistro 49. In addition, the pulper chews through discards from food preparation as well as paper napkins.
The pulping system boasts a wide menu of environmental and energy-saving benefits. First, as pulp is made, the water extracted from food waste is recycled and re-circulated through the Crown Commons and Bistro 49 operations systems. Second, decreased reliance on garbage disposals drives down University costs in water, electricity and sanitation resources. Third, water use is reduced in both the Commons and Bistro dishwashing stations.
Positive impacts extend even to employee safety: by reducing the amount of food waste that needs to be transported out of the building, the pulper alleviates the physical toll on workers who previously had to lift and wield more and heavier garbage.
Since its installation, Student Union management has searched the greater Charlotte community for an outlet where the pulper's compostable food waste could be donated. In fall 2012, they found a perfect partner in Earth Farms Organics, a Dallas, NC-based company founded by president and CEO Jim Lanier.
Earth Farms Organics transforms organic waste from all over the Charlotte area to create high-quality compost it then redistributes to area businesses, individuals and schools. Lanier started the composting facility in 2006 after more than 35 years in the Charlotte-area environmental waste industry.
Earth Farms Organics makes twice-weekly pickups at the Student Union loading dock. According to Student Union Executive Director Jerry Mann, the connection with EFO diverts about 3000-lbs of composted waste per week during the typical academic year - that amounts to nearly 25 tons of pulped waste per semester.
For Mann, the Union's relationship with EFO is the next step in a natural progression.
"As cities grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to transport bulk trash to landfills," Mann said. "Compost has become more viable in greater Charlotte. As people and businesses continue to make the transition, it further drives down costs for additional eco-friendly practices - and this is the kind of 'new tradition' the Student Union is particularly proud to support," he said.
Photo by Michael Kerr.