New technology in Hillcrest dining hall increases sustainability


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Every day, hundreds of students flood the campus dining halls, leaving tons of food waste in their wake. Starting this semester, University of Iowa officials have found a new way to divert that waste: It goes into the landscaping.

This summer, Hillcrest Marketplace installed a $58,000 food pulper, which UI Office of Sustainability Director Liz Christensen described as “a glorified food dispenser.”

But this food dispenser could save the UI 1.5 million gallons of water and more than $17,000 every year.

“It’s a rather small machine that does so much,” Sustainability Office communications specialist George McCrory said. “What it does is more remarkable than it looks.”

The pulper takes students’ leftover food and grinds it down into multi-colored mush. It then takes the food and presses the water out of it. That water is filtered and used to wash dishes, before it is taken to another dishwashing machine. Finally, the new compost is taken to the Iowa City Landfill, where it will be made into fertilizer.

“Your food today could be used in landscaping here tomorrow,” Christensen said. “I wrote the grant for the food pulper, I wanted to make the project happen.” Students will not have to make any changes dropping off their food at the cafeteria.

“You might as well preserve as much as we can,” freshman Ben Hansen said. “There’s no point in wasting food. I recycle, plastic and whatnot.”

The total project — including training staff and additional equipment — cost $65,549.32. The Solid Waste Alternative Program Grant granted the requested amount of $20,000 to mitigate that cost.

The university is projected to save roughly $8,000 in water costs, $9,542.80 from the food pulper, to come to a total savings of $17,554.

For the past three years, the dining halls had only composted untouched leftover food at Burge, Hillcrest, and the IMU River Room. Using untouched food is called pre-consumer composting. The new initiative to compost partly eaten food is referred to as post-consumer composting.

Before the food pulper, the UI diverted about 35 tons of pre-consumer food. With the pulper, there will now be a total of 137 tons of food diverted.

According to the grant proposal, officials wanted the food pulper to a play a role in the university’s efforts to increase sustainability on campus.

“Food-waste reduction will play an important role in UI’s plans to decrease waste and become more environmentally efficient,” the grant proposal read. “To reduce further food waste and to reduce water waste from garbage disposal use, the university will expand its existing pre-consumer food-waste collection to include post-consumer food waste at the Hillcrest Market Place.”

Before asking for the pulper, Ben Hansen said Office of  Sustainability representatives visited Grinnell College, which also uses a food-composting method.

“We went over to Grinnell to see how it worked,” Christensen said. “They work with a farmer who composts their food on campus.”

According to Grinnell’s website, the central Iowa college composts approximately 51 tons of food waste throughout the school year. It also uses a pulping machine, and it transports the organic matter to a local farm every morning to be composted.

The changes at Hillcrest are a part of the 2020 Sustainability Vision: The University of Iowa’s Sustainability Targets. The initiative includes many goals to achieve by 2020, including achieving 60 percent waste diversion. With the food pulper, the UI is set to divert between 25 to 30 percent of waste.

The Sustainability Office will have the official numbers of both money and food savings by mid-September.

UI officials said they will continue to work toward being more environmentally friendly in the dining halls in the next few years.

They have discussed having Hillcrest get rid of trays, not only to cut down on water costs to wash the trays but also so students will be more apt to take less food. This would result in less food waste and potentially healthier eating habits, officials said.

Ultimately, Christensen said the pulper is just one step.

“Society must transform to address the major issues of the environment,” she said. “This [pulper] promotes innovation. To me, it’s the best choice rather than doing nothing.”

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