After lunch in a Central Michigan University residential restaurant, do you ever wonder where your scraps go?
It might surprise you to learn they could one day come back to campus in a load of landscaping, having been composted instead of buried in a landfill.
For the fourth year in a row, that food waste journey has earned CMU a Food Recovery Challenge award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5, which covers Michigan and five other Midwest states.
"We just keep winning because we're that good," Jay Kahn said with a smile. Kahn, CMU director of facilities operations, recently presented a plaque to university kitchen workers — students, staff and food service contractor Aramark — for their food recovery efforts.
But there's no resting on laurels when it comes to sustainability at CMU. The university is making headway on several environmental fronts.
Competition drives progress
Kahn is among those gearing up for the annual RecycleMania. The university waste-reduction competition — started among Mid-American Conference schools, now international — runs Feb. 4-March 31, measuring recycling across the board.
"Universities have competitions in everything, and this is one of them," Kahn said. He was quick to note that CMU edged out Michigan State University in last year's contest, reclaiming 38.1 percent of waste that could have gone to a landfill, compared with MSU's 37 percent.
RecycleMania also includes mini-competitions for conserving resources and recycling specific materials, including a "GameDay" contest to see how much waste from a basketball game can be collected for recycling.
CMU will target the Feb. 17 men's and women's basketball games against Eastern Michigan University for the challenge, setting up informational tables, handing out cocoa and free swag — and steering fans to the right recycling containers for their trash.
Last year's overall RecycleMania performance placed CMU 55th out of 215 competitors, up from 109th the year before. Last year's 172 tons of recycled material topped a 150-ton benchmark that had been a CMU "stretch goal" for years, Kahn said.
He credits the improvement to counting CMU's auction sales for salvaged material — furniture, apparel, tech equipment and more.
It's part of a larger trend for CMU waste: "We're a bigger place, and we're sending less to the landfills," Kahn said.
Students make a difference
Students, too, drive the campus environmental agenda.
"We really want CMU to be a morally conscious university," Allison LaPlatt said. The senior from South Lyon, Michigan — double-majoring in environmental studies and public and nonprofit administration — is president of the Take Back the Tap student organization and campus coordinator for Food & Water Watch.
Take Back the Tap works to reduce use of single-use plastic water bottles on campus, supporting events such as the recent "day without water bottles," when Campus Dining facilities removed bottled water to encourage alternatives.
"We did a lot of education around it," LaPlatt said.
In August, the group helped CMU's Leadership Safari cut its use of water bottles by half, Laplatt said. In October, CMU won Tap-A-Palooza, a competition to sign up people on college campuses to commit to stop using disposable water bottles. The $1,500 prize helped the group with efforts including signage.
Tap water and refillable bottles also get a boost from CMU's ongoing replacement of traditional drinking fountains with water refill stations. In 2017, the university allocated $25,000 to begin replacing about 10 stations a year until the project is complete around 2020. The scope of the project and funding will be evaluated annually.
Meanwhile, anyone wanting to take stock of progress can check the digital counters that tally how many disposable water bottles each refilling station has "saved."
LaPlatt said Take Back the Tap's next goals are to work with Residence Life and registered student organizations to promote drinking tap water.
A role for Residence Life
CMU's residence halls increasingly are focal points for environmental efforts, said Residence Life Assistant Director Grant Skomski.
Last summer, Skomski lauched a project for each hall to designate a student sustainability expert to participate in hall councils, share information with hall staff and keep tabs on recycling efforts.
"The major focus will be on the education component and how we keep our students in contact with sustainability issues," Skomski said. "Residence Life should be part of our ongoing campus education process."
Food comes full circle
Back to that CMU food waste: How does it get from kitchen to compost?
Recycling containers collect peelings and scraps from food preparation and leftovers scraped from bowls and plates. Facilities Management picks up and trucks the waste to Morgan Composting in Sears, Michigan, three times a week.
With CMU feeding around 6,000 of its students three meals a day, the waste adds up to more than 350 tons a year, Kahn said, noting that Morgan does not charge the university to accept the waste, whereas a landfill would.
With the help of Mother Nature, Morgan turns the food waste into a soil "amendment" or supplement it calls Dairy Doo.
"It's like giving the soil vitamins," Kahn said.
To complete the cycle, the university trucks some of the composted material back to campus to mix with soil for landscaping.