UMaine using food scraps to plant gardens, grow crops, feed students

Posted Jan. 22, 2013, at 8:12 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine has opened an advanced composting facility that will convert more than a ton of food tossed away at the campus’ dining facilities into soil boosters for university gardens and farmland.

The university has purchased a 10-foot-by-40-foot EarthFlow 40 automated composting unit from Washington-based Green Mountain Technologies. The composter, located off Rangeley Road, will convert organic waste — such as potato peels, unused lettuce and meat scraps — into soil enhancers that will be used to beautify the campus and grow crops to feed students.

It’s the first facility of its kind in the state, according to Misa Saros, a conservation and energy compliance specialist at UMaine.

The Orono campus produces about a ton of organic waste each day at its three dining commons and marketplace. Now, that garbage can be tossed into the composter, which is “essentially a large steel box with a greenhouse on top,” Saros said Tuesday. An automated auger inside the composter, which holds about 45 cubic yards of material, shreds and shifts the refuse until it’s ready to be used as a soil amendment. Keeping the compost materials contained to the box reduces odors and keeps pests at bay.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor Mark Hutchinson, who has researched composting for 10 years, developed the “recipe” for the compost that will be produced at the facility. That recipe also calls for wood shavings and sawdust used as horse bedding from UMaine’s J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center.

The compost will be used in landscaping projects around campus, including in the ornamental gardens, at Witter Farm and in a greenhouse next to the compost facility, where students grow edible greens that are served at dining commons.

The composting process typically takes 2 to 3 weeks, according to Saros, and the university can pull out a few cubic yards of material each day and add more waste to continue the process.

“It is worth pointing out that we have been composting food waste for over a decade now,” Saros said.

In recent years, UMaine contracted with a private composting company at a cost of about $65,000 per year. UMaine expects the new composter will cost about $25,000 per year to staff and maintain with Facilities Management personnel.

The university started testing the composter in November. It became fully operational earlier this month, according to Saros.

“We are very excited to be implementing a system that makes productive use of a valuable resource that is too often discarded in landfills or incinerators,” Saros said.

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