UW Health Composting Initiative

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Madison, Wisconsin - A few years ago, employees at the University Station Clinic began making a conscious choice to separate their trash in the staff break room, and make sure things like coffee grounds and food scraps wound up in the bin designated for composting.


They, along with the thousands of employees at the UW Hospital and Clinics, are on the ground floor of a major initiative of the UW Health Environmental Sustainability Committee: to turn up to a quarter of the organization's waste into reusable compost.


How does composting work at UW Health?


‌‌Food waste and compostable materials are collected at the UW Hospital cafeteria and wheeled to the loading dock, where UW-Madison's transportation services picks it up and drives it to the university's West Madison Agricultural Research Station, about eight miles from campus.


There, the food waste goes through what's called a windrow composting system, which means the organic materials are piled on top of each other so they'll naturally break down through decomposition.‌


"Composting is really an art and a science," Sustainability Program coordinator Shannon Bunsen explains. "You need the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen; you need to make sure there's enough oxygen. There are also many different ways of composting depending on the space and equipment you have."


UW Health Compositing Initiative: Click to view the composting life cycle

Select the image above to see the full circle of composting at UW Health.

A machine turns the raw materials, allowing oxygen in and creating a nice, warm breeding ground for microorganisms. The result is compost that enhances the soil at the research station plots and, starting this spring, even at a few UW Health buildings.


Why compost?


"It's such a wonderful, natural process," Bunsen says. "I can't say enough good things about it."


There are more than a few reasons the committee wanted to develop a composting plan. Those old banana peels and egg shells support university research, by conditioning the soil at the agricultural station.


Composting also reduces the amount of post-consumer food waste that ends up in a landfill, which supports UW Health's mission of social responsibility through environmental sustainability. The hospital's waste-management contractor estimates about 25 percent of the waste sent to the landfill is organic, which means approximately 475 tons of waste could be reused and recycled as compost.


What's new with UW Health's composting program?


This spring, UW Hospital and Clinic's landscaper is going to start using compost from the research station as top soil dressing at the hospital and clinics. That means your lunch leftovers and paper napkins will come full circle and help keep our flora healthy and happy—provided you properly dispose of them in a compost bin.


Bunsen is also excited about applying the lessons they've learned to The American Center, and making the composting process just another part of the daily routine there from day one.


What can be composted?


Bunsen says most people she talks to are curious about composting, and want to help out, but aren’t always sure which items are allowed. She hopes charts like this will help:


UW Health Composting Initiative: Compostable items chart


Getting Staff Involved


"Everyone is involved in our sustainability initiatives whether they know it or not," Bunsen says, from recycling to making the decision to turn off the lights in a conference room.


To that end, Bunsen helped develop a new policy that reaffirms UW Health's commitment to be good environmental stewards, and establishes a culture of sustainability by empowering managers to educate their staff and share best practices.


Bunsen also credits UW Health's partnership with UW-Madison's sustainability and transportation experts, as well as student volunteers in the WE CONSERVE program, for helping get the project up and running.

Date Published: 03/18/2015

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