Trash to Treasure: Compost Explained

Story and Photos by Amyna Dosani Easing to your feet after a meal at Littlefield Patio Cafe, you pick up your plate, silverware and trash to carry over to the disposal. Near the typical trash can and eco-friendly recycling bin sits another receptacle: “COMPOST.”

Composting can be one of those buzz phrases, like “quantum mechanics” or “fracking,” thrown around often and not well understood by the general public. “Composting is the conversion of biodegradable products into, typically, soil amendments,” says Scott Meyer, the director of Food Service and Environmental Initiatives for the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Housing and Food Services.

Something biodegradable is capable of being broken down into harmless individual products by microorganisms. These individual products, which Meyer refers to as “ashes to ashes,” include soil amendments that can be used for fertilizer and mulch. An amendment, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is any material that aids plant growth indirectly by improving the condition of the soil.

All of UT’s compost, along with most of Austin’s, goes to Texas Disposal Systems, a large landfill plant in Creedmoor that also contains recycling and composting plants along with, strangely, an exotic game ranch, Meyer says. There, the compostable waste is arranged into large, 6-by-4-by-5 foot piles called "windrows," where a giant machine roves through the windrows and mixes up the piles of moist compost, much like a washing machine. This generates heat that, along with the air and moisture, works to decompose the waste until it turns into a brown, linty-looking material that can be reused as a nutrient-rich fertilizer that is sold in stores.

The big-kahuna question remains, though: What exactly is compostable as opposed to simply trash? Compostable waste includes lawn trimmings, brush, leaves, wood waste, untreated paper goods (including specially labeled paper cups, plates and silverware), produce, animal products, leftover food scraps, coffee grinds, oils, greases and beverages (even soda) without their containers, Meyer says. All of this is stored in special compostable trash bags.

Aluminum, plastic, glass and anything that has a shiny wax coating aren’t compostable. In fact, much of what people think is recyclable — juice cartons, generic paper drinking cups and chips bags — isn’t even recyclable, much less compostable, because it is made with waxes and incompatible plastics that are just added to landfills. Meyer says a good tip to see if something is compostable is to see if it rips easily. If not, it’s not compostable.

While there’s only a 2 percent leeway to mess up and mix different types of waste with compost and recycling before the establishment is fined by the disposal company and the waste is moved to a landfill, Meyer says it has yet to be an issue for DHFS, who trains its staff and posts helpful signs and pictures to guide diners on disposing their waste properly. It began the composting program in 2009, funding the initiative independently through food and housing charges and by cutting back on other costs.

For example, the department saved about $50,000 by cutting the use of non-recyclable plastic domes for covering to-go food, opting for a Saran wrap to-go station in dining halls. Instead of spending money on mediocre, flimsy compostable silverware, the department saved about $36,000 by offering reusable metal silverware, of which about 80 percent are successfully returned, Meyer says.

All of this helped cover the $37,000 bill for composting, plus the 35 percent increase in the cost of replacing plates, cups and other dishes with compostable versions.