K-State recycling, composting programs growing, more work is needed

Illustration by Parker Wilhelm

I grew up in Kansas City, and like many people who live in cities, I never really thought much about where my food, energy or water comes from or where my waste goes.

After a few years of study at K-State, I started getting curious about where all of the plastics, metals and other materials that I put in trash cans every day were going. I knew a lot of processing was required to change materials from their natural form to the form in which I consumed them. I wondered, how long did the reverse process take? How long would it take these different products to return their constituents to nature so they could once again be made anew?

It turns out that many of the materials our society commonly uses as “disposable” can actually take many centuries to break down depending on how we get rid of our trash.

After a long period of time during which we burned much of our waste, we now commonly pack our trash into highly engineered sanitary landfills. These landfills normally have a plastic or clay liner at the bottom to prevent contaminants from entering into the groundwater.

Once a landfill is full, it is normally covered with another liner, then some soil and grass. This helps prevent water from getting into the landfill and can help control the gases that come out as the materials decompose.

As our population continues to grow, land will become an increasingly valuable resource. In 2010, the United States generated 500 billion pounds of trash. We recycled and composted 170 billion pounds of this, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Most of what was not recycled or composted was sent to landfills.

It will be increasingly difficult to find more land to dump our trash in as our cities expand and our population places greater demands on the agriculture industry.

The majority of waste that is generated can be recycled or composted. K-State has transitioned to single-stream recycling, making it is easier than ever for us to recycle and reduce how much we send to the landfill. K-State’s recycling center is located northeast of Weber Hall.

All metals, plastics and paper can now be put into single-stream containers. Glass, cardboard, food waste and electronic waste should be kept separate. Check the K-State recycling center’s website to learn more about the process.

The recycling facility’s staff picks up all of the solid waste on campus and takes the recycling to Howie’s Recycling, located at 10th Street and Fort Riley Boulevard. Our trash goes to the Riley County Transfer Station south of town and then to Hamm landfill near Lawrence. It costs our campus $48 per ton plus the cost of fuel to send materials to the landfills.

We get paid to recycle, but we have to pay to use the landfill.

All food waste should be composted. None should be sent to the landfill. Composting is nature’s way of recycling essential nutrients for life and building healthy soils. When our food waste breaks down in the low-oxygen conditions of a landfill, it generates methane and locks away valuable nutrients for generations that could otherwise enrich our agricultural fields.

For most of human history, we relied on nature’s cycles to restore fertility to our soil. However, now a majority of our nitrogen fertilizer is made using fossil fuels and the Haber-Bosch process to turn nitrogen in the air into a form that plants can use. Much of our phosphorus comes from finite phosphorus rock. How can we possibly sustain our growing population if we are mining finite resources to supply key nutrients needed for our food crops rather than reusing the nutrients we already have?

Earlier this year, the Radina’s Coffeehouse in the Leadership Studies building became the first place on campus to offer a place to deposit food waste for composting. Radina’s customers should put any leftover food scraps, napkins and compostable materials into the bin labeled compost. The materials in this bin are picked up three times every week and delivered to the Agronomy North Farm compost operation.

In addition, a group of students involved in the K-State student farm have been growing oyster mushrooms from Radina’s spent coffee grounds, turning what was once landfill fodder into gourmet food. Contact the Willow Lake Student Farm Club if you want to learn how to grow mushrooms from organic waste or get more involved in local food production.

Now that the K-State community has approved renovations to the K-State Student Union, we must make the option of composting available in the food court. Why is a prominent agriculture school paying to send valuable nutrients to the landfill? It does not make sense economically for us to haul food waste over 75 miles to the landfill instead of composting it on the Agronomy North Farm just north of Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Our community has made significant progress on improving recycling and imposing composting practices on campus. In the Recyclemania competition this year, we increased our recycling rate to 26.7 percent, placing 153rd out of 274 competing schools.

Transitioning to single-stream recycling has allowed our staff to spend less time sorting, giving them more time to deal with the larger volumes of materials the recycling center can now accept.

We still have significant progress to make, though. We must make the option of composting and recycling available all over campus so that it is just as convenient to deal with our waste correctly as it currently is to send everything to the landfill. Future generations will thank us if we stop filling up our landfills with valuable materials. Nature provides us with a perfect model of how to recycle nutrients.

The education I have been fortunate to receive at K-State has dramatically changed how I think about our impact on the environment and future generations. I hope that K-State will continue to strive to “rule by obeying nature’s laws” by making its solid waste management system more in accordance both with nature’s laws and with our responsibility to leave future generations the best world possible.

Matt DeCapo is a graduate student in geography. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.