Creighton composts food waste, packaging

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nick McCreary has been digging through gallons of trash almost every day for a month.

It’s part of his job as Creighton University’s new director of sustainability.

“You have to get your hands dirty,’’ he told the Omaha World-Herald. “That’s the only way to know how the program is going.’’

McCreary is in charge of a pilot program at Creighton to compost packaging and food waste from the takeout meals being served daily on campus. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, students have been eating outside most days instead of in the Brandeis Dining Hall.

Takeout containers can’t be washed and used again, so it’s creating mountains of waste that in the past would have been sent to the landfill, where it would put more methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

“We had to figure out a way to reduce or divert that waste, and composting was the best solution,’’ McCreary said.

Six 64-gallon totes are spread around the school’s mall to collect the waste left after each meal. Since Aug. 17, McCreary and a group of 77 student volunteers have collected about 260 pounds of waste each day.

It’s picked up three times a week by Hillside Solutions, an eco-friendly waste hauler that helps businesses and organizations meet their sustainability goals through responsible disposal of waste materials.

Hillside runs the only industrial composting facility in the area, on 27 acres near Ashland. It takes two to four months to turn pyramids of waste into compost that eventually goes back into gardens, landscapes and farms in nearby communities.

Besides working with about 100 businesses, Hillside also has a Compost Club program for individual households.

“The opportunity to compost with Creighton shows that not all consequences of this pandemic have been negative,’’ said Brent Crampton, director of partnerships for Hillside Solutions. “There seems to be a new interest or appetite for this type of thing. We’ve seen an uptick in business as people turn to gardening and sustainable habits during this pandemic.”

What makes Creighton unique from other establishments is that the compost created by its waste will be donated to community gardens in North Omaha instead of being used on campus. Community gardens can produce healthy food for people living in places where fresh produce is hard to find.

The effort also is reducing Creighton’s carbon footprint by 85.425 pounds of carbon dioxide yearly, equivalent to removing 37 cars from the road.

“This number has the potential to balloon because we are composting on a relatively small scale,’’ McCreary said in a recent report to Creighton officials.

McCreary said students have embraced the effort, and volunteer Sam Tighe agreed. The senior from Omaha is earning a double major in sustainability and economics.

Tighe said as freshmen start a new chapter, programs like this help to point them in the right direction.

“We want to empower these young people to take charge of their own lives and be equipped with the resources to make a real difference,’’ Tighe said.

When the program started, the contamination rate in the bins was high because students weren’t sure what to compost and what to throw away. Within a few days, however, contamination plummeted.

That makes it easier on McCreary and volunteers like Tighe, who also was doing his share of trash diving.

“Now we’re not seeing much at all,’’ McCreary said. “It shows they are interested in the program and hope to see it continue.’’

If the takeout program continues and students shift to eating in their dorms when the weather cools, bins may follow them inside.

It’s the first big sustainability project for the 27-year-old McCreary, who started his job in March.

He has three objectives: educate students to make a difference even after leaving Creighton, reduce the school’s environmental footprint and position Creighton as a sustainability champion in the region.

“The composting pilot touches all three,’’ McCreary said. “It lays the groundwork for what we are doing over the next five or six years.’’

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