Campus composter John Darling said he collects an average of 300 to 400 pounds of preconsumer kitchen waste each weekday from campus food vendors, which adds up to approximately 30 tons a year.
The food scraps, as well as grass clippings and leaves collected on campus by groundskeepers, are brought to a site located behind the Environmental Health and Safety Office on Summit Avenue to be composted, Darling said.
Darling, a self-proclaimed tree-hugger, said he initially became interested in composting because of the environmental consequences.
“One of the most accessible ways to be sustainable is compost,” Darling said. “It’s a double benefit: You’re keeping things out of the landfill and you’re getting a valuable product.”
The compost Darling creates is used as mulch for landscaping around campus and in the community garden, said Meghna Tare, Institute for Sustainability and Global Impact executive director.
“It’s closed-loop recycling,” Tare said. “You pick up the waste from campus, you compost it. You use it from one end to the other, cradle to cradle, and nothing goes to the landfill.”
The university’s composting program began 10 years ago, when Darling, then a curator in UTA’s biology research museum, started a volunteer effort on campus to compost food waste.
The composting program helped UTA win an award for leadership in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge in October, Darling said.
Composting reduces UTA’s waste and cuts down the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, he said.
“Compost builds happy soil, happy plants,” Darling said.
At the composting site, Darling presented a pile of what appeared to be rich, dark soil – the end product of his composting efforts.
The compost is a rotted mixture of kitchen waste, coffee grounds and leaves that is full of bacteria and fungi that is beneficial to plants, Darling said. The compost, technically known as a soil amendment, is a material added to improve the quality of any soil.
“It’s really good for soil. It is the living part of soil,” Darling said. “Plants love compost. Our soils need more compost. The enemy of sustainability is waste.”
Sahadat Hossain and Melanie Sattler, associate civil engineering professors, created a way to make landfills more sustainable. Sattler and Hossain started going back to older parts of the landfill to dig out waste they could recycle or convert into gas for electricity.
Hossain said his concept would let a landfill stay in continuous use for hundreds of years instead of having to close down within 30 years.
After 30 years landfills can run out of space, Hossain said. Then they have to be monitored for 30 years, and it costs a minimum of $1 million a year to monitor landfills, he said.
“If you keep doing this through the landfill mining you don’t have to monitor it 30 years, so you’re saving $30 million there,” Hossain said. “This concept is known as sustainable landfill. That means that one landfill, instead of it being there for 30 years, it can be there for 100 years, 150 years, 200 years, because you are recycling the space itself.”
Hossain said plastics don’t decompose, so they are pointless in landfills, but he and his team found an alternative use for them.
Hossain has been working with the Texas Department of Transportation for about six years recycling plastic to make plastic pins for highway slopes in Texas.
“In the landfill, they are a problem, if they don’t decompose they don’t produce any gas, so you have no benefit,” Hossain said. “But in the highway, if you put them and they don’t decompose they are going to stay there. And they keep the slope stable.”
In January, UTA approved the establishment of the Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability. This center will use researchers to help educate countries on using active landfilling to combat their waste problems, Hossain said.
Eric Johnson, recycling coordinator for University Center Operations, said for the past 3 1/2 years, UTA has been collecting e-waste. He said Techway Services collects UTA’s e-waste and recycles and reconditions whatever products they can.
In 2015 alone, UTA has accumulated 321.94 pounds of batteries, 2.24 pounds of cellphones, 1,276.25 pounds of mixed electronics and 560.08 pounds of ink and toner cartridges, Johnson said.
Johnson said students and staff could even bring in used or old televisions and tapes.
“We’re looking to recycle any and everything we can,” Johnson said. “We’ll take it all.”