Maroon and orange have long been symbols of Virginia Tech, but what about green?
For the past three years, Tech has been recognized by the Princeton Review as one of the most environmentally responsible colleges in the U.S., receiving the organization’s highest possible score. However, the road to these top honors is a dirty one.
In 2009, Tech adopted the Climate Action Commitment and Sustainability Plan, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce energy consumption, encourage alternative transportation and increase the recycling rate, among other goals.
According to Denny Cochrane, sustainability program manager with the Office of Energy and Sustatinability, chief among the plan’s concerns was the better management of waste.
“In a nutshell, what that says is that we want to find ways to reduce waste at the front end of the waste stream,” Cochrane said. “In other words, we want to explore all kinds of ways to keep things out of the landfill.”
One development from the OES has been a composting program. The idea, which started in January 2009 at Southgate Food Processing Center, was to reduce waste associated with food production. In that first year, over 130 tons of compostable material was saved from the landfill.
“It was a big success,” Cochrane said. “The following year, they branched out to Owens Food Court and the following year to D2.”
With each new dining hall, high tonnage began to be composted. In 2012, with every dining hall now composting along with the Inn at Virginia Tech, approximately 550 tons of material was diverted from being thrown away.
“Cumalitively, we are above two million pounds of waste diverted,” said Rial Tombes, sustainability coordinator for Dining Services.
Twice a week, the compostables are picked up by Poplar Manor Enterprises, which was started by Tech alumni. PME takes the material to their Riner, Va., farm where the material is placed in windrows — triangular mounds measuring 9 feet by 7 feet and extending up to 250 feet.
After about 10 months of decomposition, the material turns into a rich soil and is mixed with traditional soil to increase soil nutrients and control erosion.
Despite its success, the composting program is still seeking to improve itself. While the current program focuses mainly on waste from food production, Cochrane and Tombes wish to expand to include post-consumer food.
“The idea is that you have a hamburger, you've eaten two or three pieces of it and you don't want the rest, so you put the paper in the recycling and the food in the compost,” Cochrane said.
Part of this expansion includes the three-compartment waste station seen in Turner Place. The left receptacle hosts compostable material, such as food or paper products; the middle receptacle hosts recyclable material, such as most plastics; while the right receptacle takes in trash for the landfill.
However, while Tombes said that forcing people to sort their waste has benefits, it has also confused some dining hall patrons and caused some waste to be placed in the wrong bins.
“If in doubt, throw it out,” Tombes said. “Food is always compostable and most plastics can be recycled. Keep that in mind and throw away anything else.”
The OES said that they have several initiatives underway to increase the number of outdoor recycling containers on campus. However, Tombes also mentioned that the office gets a large amount of complaints directed toward the Styrofoam to-go containers in dining halls. Styrofoam takes a considerable span of time to decompose in landfills, which is the main source of ire.
Tombes says there are two sustainable options that could replace the current Styrofoam containers: compostable containers and reusable containers.
“When you're getting a compostable to-go container, you end up having issues that people will take that container away and there isn't a proper place to get rid of it,” Tombes said. “That's not the best option. We don't want to do something that looks green but isn't really that sustainable.”
The other option is a plastic container which would actually be washed by the dining halls and then reused. This option is favored, with the office working on getting it approved by health inspectors.
The reusable containers would cost $4 to $5 each, but Tombes said this would be a long-term benefit over the current options. While they’re a higher investment, she said, they would see a return on the investment.
“It's a thing that most people see first and complain about first,” Tombes said. “Know that we are working on it; it's been a slow process to get that changed.”
The OES has already seen returns on its investment to compost. In 2011, Tech had a recycling rate of 40.1 percent, with composting accounting for 25 percent of the principal recyclable materials. However, it’s just one of the many ways in which waste has been diverted from a trash mound.
“There are countless examples of where we've been able to put our heads together and find ways of keeping things out of the landfill,” Cochrane said. “And it’s cheaper. Recycling is important.”