The journey of campus compost

UCCS is working to create a more sustainable campus, and a big part of sustainability is the composting cycle. The kitchens, facility workers, UCCS farm and waste management work together to create this eco-friendly process.

According to farm manager Polly Knutson, the process begins in the kitchen, where chefs and other workers discard food scraps into specific bins. Food scraps from dining halls and other kitchens are kept in separate bins from other compost on campus.

Once a day, the compost is picked up and brought over to the UCCS farm by students and employees. The scraps are brought into the composter piles on the farm and layered.

Facilities employees visit the farm and use machinery to turn over the compost piles.

“We use the hot compost method. We layer our browns and our greens and let it sit, then we flip it so it cooks a little more,” Knutson said. “When it’s in the layers, because of the microorganisms that are in there actually working and breaking down the food, it heats up. So there’s water, the brown, the green layers and sun. Those are the components that make up the process to break it down.”

Knutson explains that some composters use worms, chicken droppings or other organic materials to help break down the scraps. For instance, the farm uses chicken bedding to help speed up the composting process.

“That’s half the reason we have our animals,” Knutson said. Through this process, the farm creates food grade compost.

UCCS’ waste management then has a special route just for UCCS to pick up the compost from the farm. They bring the compost to their trash collection property in Midway, Colorado.

The waste management then evaluates the compost grade and breakdown rate, and examines the compost for any material that doesn’t belong. If there is a compromise that makes up the whole load, such as a whole bag of trash, everything has to be trashed.

“But if it is cleaner — as clean as they expect — and they do have a ratio on it, then they go ahead and compost it. They then go through and they sift it at the end of their process, and anything that hasn’t broken down goes back into their first pile until it’s broken down,” Knutson said.

Waste management then sells the higher-grade compost to be used on farms, and the lower grade to be used in urban agriculture, such as the grass in medians.

The farm is experimenting with three different composting styles, attempting to find what will work best for UCCS. For now, they are trying to figure out if composting scraps in lidded containers, pallets or big cardboard bins will lead to the best finished product.

“We’re trying so hard to reduce our waste here. Ideally, we would be a zero-waste campus, but that’s not realistic with where we’re at in the world right now. We’re too dependent on the big supply chain and the outside sources, and we’re not as individually or small community dependent to be able to,” says Knutson.

Knutson says the compost routine is being fully reinstated after COVID-19 interrupted it. She admits UCCS still has improvements to make about the on-campus compost process, but they are working towards an efficient system.

Compost receptacle in the Kraemer Family Library. Photo by Meghan Germain.