UT Office of Sustainability recycle and compost truck

The UT Office of Sustainability recycling truck gets a makeover and is posted to Twitter on July 1, 2021.

For years now, every UT dorm room has been equipped with a recycling bin. If you’re ever looking for a trash can on campus, it’s almost more likely that you’ll find a recycling bin.

While recycling is one way for students to easily practice sustainability, Daniel Covington, the logistics executive of UT’s Compost Coalition and senior environmental studies major, says it is not the only way. Ironically enough, though, he thinks some of those other ways have been thrown out.

“I think it's one of those parts of waste that's always overlooked,” Covington said. “You know we really push recycling hard on campus and all this other stuff but compost usually historically on campus has been cast to the wayside.”

But now, the UT Compost Coalition has made it their mission to make composting more of a viable option for students on campus. For the past year, they have been working on a composting pilot with the goal of getting composting bins in residence halls.

This week, they’re starting workshops in residence halls to introduce composting to on-campus students so they can get bins for their dorm rooms and start the process.

As part of the pilot, the club has been gauging student interest in composting by sending our surveys asking if people would be willing to try it out. While they received a lot of initial interest in the campaign, they got a smaller turnout of students wanting to attend the workshops.

One of the stipulations implemented by the residence halls was that in order for students to compost in the dorms, they would have to attend one of these mandatory workshops, so they know how to properly compost. The club hopes that after people begin to see what the process is like, they will be more willing to attend workshops and get started.

“People I think are perhaps a little bit afraid of it,” Covington said. “I think there is a stigma against compost because I think people think there are going to be pests and it's going to smell, but once the composting pilot is in full swing, I think people will see that it's not so bad.”

After all, Covington said, composting is not all that different from what students are already doing day-to-day.

“It's literally the same waste you would be throwing in the trash can,” Covington said. “You're just putting it in a different bin now. It's going to end up in a bin in your room either way.”

Even though this is one of the first opportunities students themselves have had to compost on campus, the practice is somewhat prevalent on campus already. With compost bins for paper towels in campus bathrooms and the participation of dining halls composting food waste, there is quite a lot of compost produced by UT as a whole.

According to Christina Young, the acting co-president of the Compost Coalition and a senior communication studies major, those opportunities just haven’t “trickled down” enough so students can compost their other waste.

“It would be a lot easier to create this kind of circular waste economy on campus if we were able to do that for the students,” Young said.

Although the process of composting is not as gross as many people might expect, that does not mean it’s easy. Until recently, there was not a simple way to compost in Knoxville without paying for Green Heron Compost to pick it up or doing it all yourself, which for college students living in apartments, dorms or houses often with a lot of roommates is simply not feasible, according to Young.

Now, the city of Knoxville is offering a compost drop-off station which does simplify the process quite a bit and provide everyone in Knoxville with more environmentally friendly opportunities. While this is a large step for the community, the city will not compost a lot of foods like meat and dairy that UT’s composting facility is large enough to handle.

That’s why the coalition’s next major goal once the dorm initiative is in full swing is to provide compost drop-off centers on campus, so students can take advantage of UT’s noteworthy facilities.

“One we get a public drop-off for students, you can compost almost everything … because we have such a giant freaking facility and that's so unique to almost any university in America,” Young said. “We do have that awesome base to go off of so we're trying to put that to use.”

While UT has the facility and it seems students are interested in putting it to even more use, the coalition has faced a myriad of challenges trying to punch through university red tape and a lack of resources.

The coalition has worked endlessly trying to accomplish not only the pilot project for dorms but also to get composting available to all students, including those who live off campus. Covington and Young said this has meant countless meetings with different committees. They have bounced back and forth between residence hall groups and directors, maintenance workers and everyone in between.

“It's been a complicated issue. There are a lot of different stakeholders at play here and we're just trying to strike a balance with all of them,” Covington said.

In the midst of pushing through all this red tape, the coalition cited the Office of Sustainability as a major helper in the process. In fact, the office’s goal of making composting their number one priority has lined up with the timing of the coalition’s agenda.

Where they still need assistance, according to Young, is getting initiative through administration and having support from the top that could provide the resources they’re lacking. They are looking for more workers to assist in the understaffed waste management department, better pay and more infrastructure that would allow for these drop-off centers to be easy to access and receive waste from.

“I mean really being able to work collaboratively with the administration if they were to show a vested interest in making UT more sustainable in action rather than name, I think that would really really help,” Young said. “We have a master plan, we have a vision for what we wanna do and we're doing what we can but it's pushing through all the barriers that gets really discouraging in the process.”

Not only is composting a sustainable practice that could help to combat climate change and reduce waste but Covington also said it is a tangible way to help and can even foster communities. The coalition has gotten to work with Green Heron, the city of Knoxville, UT’s SPEAK club and many other organizations and people.

“Composting is a really important part of waste management,” Covington said. “In terms of what you're getting back from it, it's probably the most personal kind of waste management because when you recycle it goes into a bin and gets sent to a recycling facility and you probably will never see the products of that again. But with compost, this is a situation where students are donating their food waste to the composting facility and then the compost is put back on campus.”

The coalition is, again, fighting a lack of resources and a policy process that has taken a lot of time and energy. Young sometimes gets discouraged after fighting for these little changes and seeing corporations in the midst of environmentally harmful activities that some would say negate small actions like recycling and composting. For her though, she knows that all she can do is her best to respect the planet and work to encourage others to do the same.

“The response to that, really, I think just has to come from finding some sort of inner peace with the state of the world and being like, ‘I'm going to do what I can,’” Young said. “That is the core of it, these are people doing what they can. That’s a lot of the work in sustainability. We're trying to do a good thing and we're really, really trying to do a good thing. So, that's the motivation there. You just want to make whatever impact that you can and it be a positive one.”

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