After finishing the last bite of an apple, it’s almost second nature to toss it into the trash can before heading off to class. But what happens then? Few people know the fate of their food waste. But for many McGill students, the matter wasn’t just a concern—it was the beginnings of a significant undertaking.
Composting on campus: a big project in the works
Under the right conditions, organic matter—such as landscaping clippings and food—decompose into nutrient rich soil that can be used as fertilizer to sustain new life. Under the wrong conditions, like in a landfill, the rotting waste contributes to critical urban environmental problems. Landfills cause groundwater pollution by leaching toxic liquid into the soil and water table. Furthermore, the oxygen-free environment within the garbage heaps leads to the production and release of the greenhouse gas methane, which ultimately lead to negative changes in climate.
For policy makers, the decrease in available landfill space is a pressing problem. Consequently, Quebec is taking action to divert this waste from landfills into a composting system. The provincial government dictates that McGill must divert 60 per cent of all organic waste away from either landfill or incineration by 2015. The long-term vision is to have a 100 per cent diversion rate.
The city of Montreal is also working to expand their compost capacity by establishing organic material treatment facilities across the city and is piloting an organic waste pick-up project where compost from residences will be collected by the city. However, McGill is not under Montreal’s jurisdiction for waste management. The university is required to comply with the policies and legislation set provincially and municipally, but must manage their waste independently otherwise.
For many students, the campus’ composting system—or lack thereof—was not something they planned on ignoring.
Kendra Pomerantz, U3 Environmental Economics and internal manager of the McGill Food Systems Project, is one of those students.
“I think it’s time to get on the bandwagon [with composting],” Pomerantz said. “At one point recycling was super controversial, and now everyone recycles. I think it’s kind of the next big thing and it seems like in 10 years, it’s going to be everywhere.”
It started with students
Nearly nine years ago, a student organization on campus named Gorilla Composting was established with the intention of creating a waste management plan that utilized composting. Initially, when their pilot project began, food waste was not able to be composted on campus and had to be brought to Quinn Farm in Ile-Perrot instead.
But five years after its modest beginnings, Gorilla Composting purchased an industrial bioreactor—dubbed “Big Hanna”—in order to make composting more of a reality on campus.
Big Hanna—a large, stainless steel composter with a capacity of 91.25 tonnes per year—was installed in 2010 below M.H. Wong Building. It was originally thought to be a silver bullet for sustainability.
Oliver de Volpi, the executive chef at McGill, explained that the McGill Food and Dining Services (MFDS) has been heavily involved with Big Hanna from the start.
“[MFDS—and] now Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS)—had been the main partner [for Big Hanna ever] since [it] arrived on campus,” de Volpi said. “We are the biggest producer of compostable material and we set up and paid for the daily pickup service. For us, it was one more step in our sustainability initiatives, so we started [composting] pre-consumer waste from all of our residences.”
For many, such enthusiasm has turned into frustration. Over the last four years, a laundry list of problems has accumulated from issues with cold weather to a lower than expected capacity that the machine can process. As someone deeply involved with food waste in the residences, de Volpi observed these problems firsthand.
“Big Hanna has been the biggest challenge for sure,” de Volpi said. “[Everything from] temperature, volume, [to] quality of the compostable material going in. It has had at least eight weeks every year when it was “down” and that is out of a 36-week year.”
After a flood during the Winter of 2013 rendered the machines temporarily non-functional, de Volpi sought out the assistance of Compost Montreal.
Compost Montreal is a compost transport company which brought waste from McGill to a commercial composting facility run by the Montreal Department of Parks and Horticulture in St. Henri. Once Big Hanna was repaired, the pre-consumer compost from the residences was split between Big Hanna and Compost Montreal, and the limited post-consumer waste went to Compost Montreal.
Taking concrete actions
In 2013, MFDS—with the help of then Project Coordinator and Supervisor Lou-Anne Daoust-Filiatrault and a handful of other interested students—conducted a “Greenhouse Gas Audit.”
“From [the] numbers [generated from the audit], we set up a series of recommendations as to how we could improve [our carbon emissions],” Daoust-Filiatrault said. “One of the recommendations was to create a 401 project—[an environmental course for student research]— that was going to deal specifically with compost.”
Though the audit’s conclusions reflected a need for change, Daoust-Filiatrault explained that such change can come with challenges. Like most matters of sustainability, funding is a major impediment to the implementation of a new compost scheme.
“[With] energy and water [changes], usually you’re reducing costs, whereas [with] waste, you’re paying more to be ‘better,’ which is always the [concern…] with budgets,” Daoust-Filiatrault said.
But funding—though a formidable obstacle—is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Storage and pick up is [also] an issue,” Daoust-Filiatrault said. “Do you have a place to store it? Is there a freezer you can store it in? Who picks it up? Is there parking? How many pickups in a week?”
The 401 course sought to tackle some of these logistical challenges. Under the supervision of Environment professor George McCourt, its goal was to evaluate the current system and set up proposals for a new system.
The project’s final report, written by nine students—including Pomerantz—consists of 66 pages of research. It covers everything from current waste management legislation, to internal and external case studies, to potential solutions and proposed recommendations.
The first stage of the proposals from the 401 course has already been implemented. As of this January, Compost Montreal has increased its involvement with McGill’s compost system, and now runs Big Hanna—a responsibility that used to fall under the department of McGill’s Facilities Operations and Development.
“It’s been good; it’s been a learning curve getting to know the machine […] and how it might be applied to different institutions,” said Cameron Stiff, in charge of development, finance & commercial accounts at Compost Montreal. “We have long been excited about developing our own site and the decomposition process. We are excited about the possibilities and we are actually going to be at Mac [campus] at the end of the month. We’re hoping to use the opportunity to talk to some professors, to develop new partnerships, and [to] expand to McGill.”
Daoust-Filiatrault attributed the composting projects’ achievements thus far to student inquiry and cooperative efforts with staff, faculty, and administration.
“That’s what started it all in the first place—students researching, students talking about it, students asking to do waste audits,” Daoust-Filiatrault said. “Students looking for records, talking to companies, talking to Compost Montreal, [and] examining Big Hanna. It was students who really started it, and staff members were interested and onboard. And it was sort of the collaboration between the two that worked well.”
With the 401 course over, Pomerantz and two other students are continuing the composting initiative in an honours project and two independent studies with the McGill Food Systems Project, which uses student research and community involvement to promote food sustainability on campus.
Other initiatives and resources for interested students
The ongoing composting initiative on campus is just one fraction of the efforts to make McGill more sustainable by students on campus.
Amelia Brinkerhoff, U2 Environmental Science and Student Sustainability Coordinator for SHHS, has had ample experience with students interested in making a difference with sustainability on campus.
“Students interested and curious about environmental issues at McGill are really fortunate, because not only do you have a wonderful set of pathways within the academics [where] you can explore your interests, [but] you [can] take a project and invest your time in your campus,” Brinkerhoff said. “If you kind of research it on your own, it’s not as strong and fruitful as if you worked with a professor in a class.”
Beyond academic courses, Brinkerhoff pointed out that McGill itself has countless options for students looking to make a change. For example, the McGill Office of Sustability (MOOS) oversees research, community engagement, and even funding through its Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF), which anyone in the McGill community can apply for to fund their sustainability initiatives.
“It [can feel] like there [are] a lot of hoops to jump through sometimes,” Brinkerhoff said. “MOOS really shortens that and they make it easier for students to access issues of sustainability. It’s a good office to have. You have faculty that push[es] you to explore. Motivated students can get funding for projects they care about. It’s a good standard for the quality of work they’re doing. The SPF fund allows students to act on their passions and to be rewarded for that, and they make really considerable conclusions.”
With these resources at hand and projects like the ongoing initiative for campus composting finding success after careful research and planning, students should feel confident with taking on sustainability challenges on campus.
“Talk to your staff, talk to your administrators, maintenance people who work there, facilities,” Daoust-Filiatrault said. “Figure out what’s going on. The more research you have, the more you’re able to quantify what you want to do, [and] the easier it is to get it done.”
No matter how well planned or how motivated, a lot of projects won’t succed unless there are people willing to participate. The next challenge is making sustainability matter to the greater McGill community.