1,728 Tons and Counting: University’s Food Scraps Find New Life

October 28, 2022 By Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu

Picture this: You are in one of the three University of Virginia dining halls and you just finished your breakfast. You place your dirty plate and food scraps in the dish return station, leave, and go about your day.

Where does this waste go after you leave the dining hall?

Caroline Baloga, UVA Dine’s sustainability manager, has the answer – and it is more complicated than you might think.

Part of her job, she said, “is to make sure that we’re collaborating effectively with the University on the existing goals for sustainability and making sure that we’re doing our part in reaching those goals.”

Here’s how food leftovers later become compost for some of the University’s community gardens:

When a student puts a dish in the dish return, any leftover food scraps, napkins and other compostable waste items are sorted through by staff members and placed into a pulper, a machine that breaks up and removes the moisture from the waste. This material is then collected in a compost bin and placed on the dining hall’s loading dock.

A few times each week, Black Bear Composting picks up the bins and drives them to its location in Crimora, just 40 minutes away from Grounds in the Shenandoah Valley.

Upon arrival, Black Bear Composting workers mix the contents of the bins with the company’s special composting recipe. “The recipe calls for a lot of leaves and wood chips,” Baloga said. “Then, it will age for three months.”

After the initial aging process, Black Bear Composting runs several temperature and composition tests. If the material passes, it’s aged again for three more months.

The composting material is put through a machine that removes any larger fragments, which go through the cycle again to ensure all matter is used.

Finally, after months, the rich composting material is ready.

Baloga has only been UVA Dine’s sustainability manager for just over two years, but sustainability is not a new initiative at UVA Dine. In 2008, UVA Dine formulated its first sustainable food purchasing guidelines, and in 2010, the first full-time sustainability leader was hired.

Baloga works with Green Dining, a group of UVA Dine student interns that use their perspectives as students to assist UVA Dine in their sustainability prospects.

Green Dining has four main goals regarding sustainability in UVA dining facilities: responsible sourcing, waste minimization, promoting climate-friendly meals, and student engagement surrounding sustainable food topics.

truck carrying compost
The food scraps collected in UVA dining halls are sent to Black Bear Compost’s facility in Crimora, just a 40-minute drive from Grounds. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Composting falls under the pillar of waste minimization.

UVA Dine is approaching its 14th anniversary of compositing in dining facilities, first piloted in the Observatory Hill Dining Hall before being expanded to 13 on-Grounds dining locations.

Black Bear Composting entered the equation in 2010, inspired by a similar food-scrap collection program at Virginia Tech.

Some of the compost is transferred back to the University to use in community gardens, like the UVA Student Garden, a student-led plot located across the street from Observatory Hill, and the Hereford College Farm Garden located near Runk Dining Hall.

The UVA Student Garden grows an assortment of flowers, herbs and vegetables, meaning the compost made by the food scraps from Observatory Hill Dining Room is recycled to grow more produce for UVA students, just across the street.

“It is really important to compost, because if it goes to the landfill, it can decompose improperly and release methane, which is a really potent greenhouse gas emission,” Baloga said. “But if it goes to the compost, it’s treated more as a resource that can be cycled back into the system and used as a really good, natural fertilizer.”

Since the start of the partnership with Black Bear Composting, UVA Dine has successfully converted 1,728 tons of waste into compost. In 2021 alone, the partnership produced 249 tons.

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“Sustainability is really important because it’s basically ensuring the long-term health of our planet and the people who exist on the planet,” Baloga said. “It encompasses making sure we’re promoting the well-being and equity of people, whether it’s the students coming into our dining halls, employees, or the people that we’re purchasing our food from.”

Everyone that enters a dining facility, whether they are a student, faculty member or guest, should feel empowered to make environmentally conscious decisions, Baloga said. With the composting initiatives of UVA Dine, it is easier than ever to make a habit of being environmentally conscious.

“No one is perfect,” Baloga said. “But please be mindful of the waste that you are creating in the dining hall. Whether you are using a compostable cup, napkins or eating food, just be mindful that your waste has to go somewhere.

“Being mindful of your waste footprint and finding opportunities, like in the dining halls, to compost any leftover food is an easy way to minimize your waste footprint.”

Media Contact

Renee Grutzik

University News Associate Office of University Communications