Small start looks to address a big issue

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western graduate student Alan Kalbfleisch, a member Engineers Without Borders Western, is leading a new student-run organic waste initiative in the Spencer Engineering Building. The project sends compost to Harvest Power, a London facility that uses an anaerobic digestion process to produce methane from the waste.

Others may have seen it as a disappointment; Alan Kalbfleisch saw it as the start of something bigger.

“On our first day, we collected one banana peel,” said the Engineering masters student of a new student-run organic waste partnership. “It wasn’t great. But someone was using it. If there are things we can change at home, like an organic program, it’s going to eventually change the big picture. We have to start small.”

In 2014, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) challenged its university chapters to make an impact on a social and environmental issue within their local food system. Western opted to focus its efforts on organic waste, with a goal making a “measurable effect on Western’s carbon footprint.”

EWB Western established the Food Systems initiative, which combines a small-scale marketing campaign within Engineering with a series of compost bins, alongside each garbage bin, within three Spencer Engineering Building locations – the staff lounge, the Undergraduate Engineering Society room and Tim Horton’s (Da Vinci’s) on the ground floor.

“By running a campaign in one building, we could easily try multiple education strategies and determine which to be the most effective at getting people to use the bins,” he said. “Once we found a successful strategy, we would expand to other buildings on campus.”

Led by the EWB chapter, the program partners with Western Sustainability, Hospitality Services, the Undergraduate Engineering Society and the Faculty of Engineering,

Setting up bins has not been without challenges. Due to union rules, Engineering building caretakers do not collect compost. Therefore, student or staff volunteers empty the bins themselves. Hospitality Services staff members collect the larger compost bin at Da Vinci’s.

The program has received campuswide recognition, as it finished as a runner-up in the Western Ideas for Sustainability and the Environment (WISE) competition, sponsored by Sustainability Western, and received $500 toward the initiative.

But the true victory may be solving a problem of student awareness – or lack thereof.

“Organic waste, in particular, seems to be completely misunderstood by the student population,” Kalbfleisch said.

Nearly three out of four Western students are not aware of any on-campus composting initiatives, despite bins being located in eateries such as the University Community Centre, according to a Fall 2014 EWB Western survey.

“No students we talked to were aware of what even happens to the compost,” he added.

Kalbfleisch said Western sends its compost to Harvest Power, a London facility that uses an anaerobic digestion process to produce methane from the waste. The methane is then used as a fuel to generate carbon neutral electricity. Harvest power produces 430 kWh of energy from a single tonne of organic waste. Western currently collects 218 tonnes of organic waste per year – generating 94,000 kWh of energy.

“The goal of our initiative is to increase the use of Western’s organic waste bins, educate students about the benefits of composting and prove organic waste can be expanded throughout our community,” Kalbfleisch said. “Composting is a simple and easy way to reduce our impact on the environment. Recycling has become this thing that everyone is used to; why can’t organics be the same?”