Area Schools Dig Into Composting’s Benefits

Posted: March 17, 2014

HARRISONBURG — Eastern Mennonite University, James Madison University, and now Bridgewater College have taken on roles as environmental stewards — as participants in large-scale programs to turn food waste into compost. It’s an eco-friendly way not only to keep waste out of landfills but also to save money by reusing the composted material as a natural fertilizer.

Many cities around the country offer curbside pickup of food waste. The city of Harrisonburg does not offer such a program, said public information officer Mary-Hope Vass.

Bridgewater College recently implemented a composting pilot program for all food waste from its dining hall, said Teshome Molalenge, director of the center for sustainability at the school.

“Composting discarded organic material returns the nutrients to the soil, supporting efforts on the Bridgewater campus and elsewhere to sustain healthy soils and grow food without chemical fertilizers,” said Deva O’Neil, assistant professor of physics and campus sustainability committee member at Bridgewater College.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds of food waste are collected from the school per week by Black Bear Composting in Crimora, Molalenge said.

As part of the agreement, Black Bear provides a small amount of compost to the college for gardening, as well as an opportunity for students to learn about the composting process.

James Madison University began a composting program at its two large residential dining halls — East Campus Dining Hall and Gibbons Hall — in spring of 2010 and in February 2011, respectively, said Caroline Rust, sustainability coordinator for dining services.

“Only about one-third of all meals at JMU are served in residential dining, so a large opportunity was identified in retail a la carte facilities,” she said.

Extending composting to retail food courts presented several unique challenges not faced in the residential dining halls. It required replacing disposable packaging with compostable products, like utensils, packaging, straws and napkins.

The composting program expanded to the Festival Food Court, a multi-concept, a la carte facility in January 2012, said Rust.

Composting at East Campus Dining Hall, Gibbons Hall and Festival Food Court diverted a total of 525 tons of food waste from the landfill from spring 2010 to summer 2012.

In August of 2013, composting began at another two of JMU’s largest multi-concept retail locations, PC Dukes and Top Dog. In September, those two locations diverted 30 tons of waste from the landfill.

At Eastern Mennonite University, food waste is collected, composted in a facility at the school, and used in gardens on campus to produce food for the cafeteria, said Jonathan Lantz-Trissel, the school’s sustainability coordinator.

The program was started about five years ago, after EMU obtained a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality to run the facility. At the time, the closest facility permitted by DEQ to take food scraps was near Charlottesville.

Today, more than 1,000 pounds of food are collected from the cafeteria, coffee shop and other food venues on campus, he said.

“We have a closed nutrient cycle that is great for educational purposes and for the garden,” he added.

Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition at Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said there are several small-scale efforts at composting fruits and vegetable waste at a few city schools.

The efforts are educational, and the compost will eventually be used in school gardens. The schools are not involved in large-scale composting with a waste management company, but officials may consider it in the future.

“Food waste is an issue in any large scale feeding operation, and so we want to continue to look for best practices to minimize the amount of food that ends up in a landfill,” Early said.

Bridget Baylor, coordinator of public relations at Blue Ridge Community College, said she is not aware of a food waste composting program at the school.

Contact Jonathon Shacat at 574-6286 or

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