Trash Trailblazer: Mehling Hall introduces composting system

| February 9, 2016 3:55pm

by Rachel Rippetoe |

A building on The Bluff made UP history last week ... for its trash.

Last Sunday, Mehling Hall, UP’s oldest all-women’s residence hall, became the first dorm to start a compost system.

While composting may already seem like a staple in the UP community with students separating their food waste in The Commons and the Pilot House, all the snacks and to-go boxes filled with leftovers that get tossed into dorm trash bins add up to a hefty amount of waste.

“We realized that the term compost doesn’t make sense to people,” Mehling Sustainability Coordinator Mara Midiere said. “A lot of people are eating in their dorms and we’re trying to get them to understand that it’s just what you’re seeing in The Commons and the Pilot House but in your building.”

Midiere and other dorm sustainability coordinators have been working to install a compost system in at least one of the dorms for the past year. Their proposal to put compost bins on five of Mehling’s eight floors was finally approved at the end of last term by Jim Ravelli, vice president for University operations. 

“I thought the project was innovative, well thought out and worthy of our support,” said Ravelli.

The plan was officially implemented last Sunday. Clear bins and signs were placed on the second, fourth, sixth and eighth floors, as well as in the basement.

While the school has permitted funding for the dorm compost bins and the bags that go inside of them, Physical Plant is not yet involved with the actual disposal of the food.

The smelly job is left instead to Midiere and the sustainability coordinators for the rest of the dorms. According to Midiere, the coordinators will dispose of the compost in Mehling on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and sometimes an additional time on the weekend depending on how full the bins get.

“The first pickup was today. We had 20 pounds of compost from like a day and a half. So it’s a lot,” Midiere said. “We’re doing it in teams of two, so two people pick a day and schedule a time together and then they just go through the floors.”

The strong participation that Mehling residents have already turned out for the project could be attributed to Midiere’s pursuit of getting the word out on how to properly compost and why it’s important.

The sophomore organizational communication and environmental policy double major said the most difficult aspect of composting for students might appear to be the most simple: food only.

“I think people get freaked out if they don’t know what (composting) is,” Midiere said. “They think it’s a lot of steps but it’s just food ... A lot of people haven’t clicked with that yet or just don’t care, which is an issue.”

When students regularly put napkins and other non-food items into the compost bin, much of what would have gone to a proper food processor actually ends up in the landfill.

Yet, the concept of a “food only” compost may be foreign to some students, especially those who grew up in cities with different systems like Seattle.

“In Seattle, you can put a lot more in the compost than you can here,” Midiere said. “The way their machines are set up is different. Portland switched because having just food makes it a lot more efficient of a system.”

UP’s sustainability coordinators are hoping the success of Mehling’s compost system might lead to composting in all dorms on campus.

Junior Gabe Ablin, the student representative appointed to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Sustainability, believes that with enough student participation, this could be a possibility.

"Not many students realize it, but we have the power to effect change more than many other entities on campus," Ablin said. "If people participate in the Mehling pilot, the sustainability coordinators will have conclusive data to present to the school — it's hard to argue with that."

However, finding a home for compost bins in other residence halls may prove to be a difficult task. Mehling has the perfect setup for a composting system, with a kitchenette on every floor. Providing an effective system could be more challenging for other dorms with only one kitchen.

Midiere explained that trying to put compost bins on floors without kitchens can result in several issues. If the compost bins are simply left in the hallway, they can produce undesirable smells, but when contained in a small trash room, the trapped moisture causes the food to decompose too quickly.

Despite the challenges, Midiere said that composting in all the dorms would have a positive role in reducing the university’s emissions.

“Getting (composting) in some form or another in all of the buildings would be great,” Midiere said. “That’s the ultimate goal because the big issue around compost is when food waste goes into the landfill it generates a lot of methane.”

By composting in Portland, food waste that could have been turned into methane, a greenhouse gas about 30 times stronger and more harmful than carbon dioxide, becomes fertilizer used by local farmers. Portland also uses compost as a form of power through biogas.

Not only is composting in the dorms an environment-friendly project, it’s also cost-friendly.

Right now, the budget for composting in Mehling falls under $100. But based on programs at other universities, Midiere predicts that the project will eventually fund itself with money saved from trash pickups. Taking food waste out of the regular trash causes a huge reduction in garbage sent to landfills, which reduces costs.

Ravelli also notes that many of the maintenance calls to dorms are related to food waste clogging up the drains. If food was disposed of separately, this would be a non-issue and could also potentially save the University money.

“This is not an expensive program to maintain,” said Midiere. “And if UP is trying to cut down on any emissions they’re wasting, this is the best way.”


Rachel Rippetoe is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at