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The food scrap diversion efforts taking place on the campus of UMass Lowell (UML), a public research university in Lowell, Massachusetts, with some 18,000 students, have been honored by Casella Waste Systems with one of the firm’s 2020 Sustainability Leadership awards.

UML was named as “Innovator of the Year” by Casella, and was one of eight companies, governments or institutions honored for its ability to work in partnership with Casella to meet and exceed sustainability goals. The Innovator of the Year category was created to recognize a Casella customer advancing resource sustainability by embracing innovative solutions.

In the case of UML, the honor was earned for its consistent ability to convert food scraps into compost for campus landscaping, and for being “the first campus in the Northeast to adopt a system that turns organic waste into renewable energy,” says the school.

According to UML Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony, more than one motivating factor led to the university’s organics diversion success story, and the program—far from being a burden—has solved several problems.

Changing state of affairs

O’Mahony says UMass Lowell had a clear incentive to set up its program about seven years ago. “Our organics diversion program began in 2013 in advance of the Massachusetts Commercial Food Waste Ban that took effect July 1, 2014,” he comments.

The university decided to seek opportunities as it moved towards compliance. “Rather than just comply with the ban, we decided to take an innovative approach and explore how we could use organics diversion to contribute to the greening of our campus,” he says.

One of the results has been the generation of nutrient-rich compost that is used in gardens and green spaces on campus. The recycled-content product has been sold to the UML community in a pilot program run by the Office of Sustainability.

Working with the Casella Organics division, UML composts food scraps from every dining hall on campus, as well as from its cafes, food courts, the Tsongas Center arena and the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. These combined university facilities generated nearly 280 tons of compost in 2019, according to Tianna Begonis, UML’s account manager at Casella.

Additionally, since 2015, many of the collected foods scraps have been directed into an anaerobic digestion (AD) process that starts on campus and continues off-site.

UML says it was the first college campus in the region, and second in the country, to install InSinkErator Grind2Energy food waste recycling units. The Grind2Energy system, made by St. Louis-based Emerson Electric Co., converts food scraps into a slurry that is stored in a 3,600-gallon tank.

"We decided to take an innovative approach and explore how we could use organics diversion to contribute to the greening of our campus.” –UML Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony

The liquid waste is pumped into a truck and hauled to an AD facility, where captured methane is converted into energy. The remaining organic material can be used as fertilizer, says UML.

The current system and program that has earned UML its recognition from Casella evolved over the course of several years, with some measures taken to solve problems or improve upon an existing setup.

Addition and subtraction

The recognition by Casella derives from the fact that UML is a customer of the Rutland, Vermont-based waste and recycling services provider, which has seen the success of the university’s organics initiates firsthand.

“Casella was selected to provide university waste and recycling services through a competitive bid process in 2015,” says O’Mahony. “One of the reasons Casella was selected was the customer education and resource section of their bid,” he adds.

The timing was good, states O’Mahony. “It was fortuitous that UMass Lowell’s Office of Sustainability was established [around that] same time. Staffing expertise from UML and Casella combined to roll out many of the innovative projects and practices recognized with this award.”

Casella’s deeper understanding of waste conversion technology options helped provide a prompt solution—the InSinkErator Grind2Energy technology—to an emerging problem, says the UML sustainability director.

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“The initial driver here was finding a solution to odor and pest issues associated with [plastic container]-based composting,” says O’Mahony. “The closed loop system offered by Grind2Energy was very attractive to UML.”

Using two Grind2Energy units allowed for the prompt processing of food scraps, staving off potential pest infestations. And as the name of the technology implies, the units offered a green energy aspect to the diversion program.

“The fact that we could generate energy from our food waste aligned well with the university’s greenhouse gas reduction and sustainability goals,” states O’Mahony. “The first location at the university’s arena, the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, was a partnership between UML’s Office of Sustainability, [our] athletics [department], our dining vendor Aramark and Casella. Collectively, we recognized the value of a Grind2Energy system at this location, given the high-profile location and significant amount of [food consumption] at hockey games, etc.”

"The fact that we could generate energy from our food waste aligned well with the university’s greenhouse gas reduction and sustainability goals.” –UML Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony

According to the Emerson website, food waste is ground on-site via Grind2Energy using a “customized, industrial-strength food service grinder.” The food waste recycling system enables users “to dispose of all types of unavoidable food waste—including fats, oils and grease (FOG)—faster, cleaner and easier.” The benefits include minimizing avoidable food waste while reducing odors, pests, emissions and labor costs, says Emerson.

The encouraging evolution of the food scraps diversion program has allowed UML and O’Mahony to take a confident attitude toward turning other waste streams into recycling opportunities.

Recognition and determination

O’Mahony says the progressive thinking that has led to UML’s food scrap diversion success extends to additional types of material. While the university is pleased to be recognized, it also is determined to make additional progress in furthering the campus’ recycling footprint.

“We are continuously encouraged to be innovative and to try new ideas,” he remarks. “The fact that we are recognized for that is really reflective of the culture that exists at our university.” O’Mahony credits UML Chancellor Jacquie Moloney for her commitment to climate neutrality and sustainability.

As far as what lies ahead, the possibilities encompass “everything,” says O’Mahony. “We pursue zero waste goals at UMass Lowell. Our capital and construction projects are conducted in accordance with LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standards,” he adds.

On the recycling front, “The Office of Sustainability oversees significant programs for electronics recycling, [expanded polystyrene] recycling, confidential shredding, furniture recycling and reuse, start of year move-in and end of year move-out programs, along with a general zero-sort recycling program.”

With the world’s attention focused on plastics recycling, the UMass Lowell campus is no exception, says O’Mahony. “We have one of the leading plastics engineering academic programs in the world, which ties all this work into the research and teaching side of the university.”

The university’s sustainability efforts have been recognized by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. In its 2020 Sustainable Campus Index, UML ranked fifth in the area of waste reduction among more than 650 higher education institutions worldwide, says the university.

Casella Waste Systems says it is proud to have organizations like UML on its roster of customers. “A more sustainable world will take many more organizations doing the work that you do, with the commitment that you have all demonstrated,” Casella Chairman and CEO John Casella told UML and the seven other sustainability award recipients. “Your leadership is important.”

Adds Casella Associate Brand Manager Abby Marsh, “UMass Lowell has earned a reputation as an innovator. They’re always willing to try something new to advance sustainability. We look forward to many more experiments and innovations in the years to come.”

The author is a senior editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at btaylor@gie.net.