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The University of Worcester

Posted: Mon Feb 08, 2010 4:28 pm Post subject: The University of Worcester

Image As the fastest growing higher education institution in the UK, the University of Worcester is two and a half years into a comprehensive waste management programme. The programme aims to change the attitudes of both the 1,000 staff and 8,000 students alike when it comes to recycling. The most recent development on campus has been the trial of an organic food waste digester - powered by 50 kilograms of earthworms.

Katy Boom, Head of Sustainability & Development at the University of Worcester, explained the project further: “We wanted to take a holistic approach to waste management. The plan was to assess the different waste streams produced on the university site, along with the behavioural tendencies of different groups of people across campus when it came to recycling and waste.”

An opportunity to make changes to the university’s waste management strategy came in 2007, when Katy and her colleagues were in the process of reviewing their waste contractor. The University was keen to work in partnership with Worcester City Council on the project, having had a strong relationship during past projects. The council, who could provide free recycling to residential spaces, won the tender in December 2008.

“There was a focus on improving recycling, and attitudes, in halls of residence,” Katy said. “As there are sometimes neighbour issues when students move into residential areas in their second year, we wanted to ensure they’d be better members of the community, with respect to waste management, when they moved off campus.”

Katy and her colleagues developed a strategy to purchase their own euro bins, and small , easy to lift polycarbonate bags as part of the recycling strategy. They then faced the decision of the best strategic locations for the bins, so they could cater for the halls of residence, refuse from staff offices and academic teaching spaces, and the campus kitchen.

“As this was a joint campaign, Worcester City and University staff visited every student flat on campus, to explain the new system in person,” Katy said. “We had purchased different coloured receptacles and wanted to make sure all students understood the system, with green bins for dry recyclates, and black for waste to landfill, that were always co-located. We wanted there to be a unifying graphical scheme to the project, so the recycling became automatic behaviour, and used a colour scheme in keeping with other university designs. We then made sure that each euro bin was adorned with a sticker detailing exactly what could and couldn’t be put inside.

“We were keen for students to learn to empty their own bins, and, more precisely, to learn the system adopted by Worcester City Council, so that when they moved out they were already familiar with what can and cannot be recycled in Worcester. We had it in mind that the local council would be providing a much improved service in the years following the start of the project, so we had to bear in mind how we would change our on-campus system to match this.”

The team had also identified that bin liners were costing the university a lot of money. Yet, as Katy and her colleagues realised; once you extract organic waste from the waste stream, dry recylates and waste for landfill did not really require a bin bag.

“We now faced quite a difficult question,” Katy said. “How do you operationalise a third waste stream, making it cohere with the student’s union facilities, staff rooms and an outsourced kitchen, on a site used by 9,000 people?”

In answer, plans were soon underway to introduce a worm composter to the university site that was capable of dealing with this third waste stream. In (January 2010), Worcestershire-based company, Organic Food Waste Digesters Ltd, agreed to trial a 250 litre worm composter on campus, so that the university could explore how the digester might operate on as part of a large institution, all learning that could provide reference for further customers.

The worm composter is a galvanised metal structure, with steps built up the side to allow access to an opening in the roof where organic waste may be tipped inside. It was filled with 50 kilograms of surface burrowing, ‘blue nose’ earthworms, which are given a few weeks to settle down before the first use. A solar panel, mounted on top of the composter, powers a computer which constantly monitors the internal temperature, adjusting conditions with an internal pump. The composter can therefore be used all year round, and can be adapted to the local climate.

Katy and her colleagues provided some plastic tubs (originally mayonnaise containers, salvaged from the kitchens) along with several 11 litre polycarbonate bags, which were given to students and staff as part of the digester trial. The washable tubs could be reused, and were labelled with the graphics of what can and cannot be put inside.

The digester is capable of dealing with all the organic waste matter from the university campus; from vegetable peeling, to chicken skins, cooking oil, and leftover cooked food. Each worm can eat between half a gram and two grams of waste a day. This flexibility in food requirement means that the worms will be quite comfortable with the reduced waste stream over the summer months when the halls of residence are vacated.

The composter will also take grounds waste, cardboard and waxed paper, which cannot currently be recycled by the council. As part of the pilot, Katy and her colleagues will be investigating whether worms will digest the disposable wax cups found in many vending machines. It is known that the worms will digest such cups if they are shredded, but shredding equipment is an expensive option.

The worm composter is not damaged by the introduction non-organic items, unlike similarly functioning equipment with moving parts. If some non-waste item, such as a teaspoon, accidentally finds its way into the worm composter, it will eventually work its way to the bottom of the composting cavity, and may be removed from the base of the structure.

It takes between 7-14 days for the contents of one sack to work through the composter and appear at the other end; in part as organic compost, and part a mineral rich liquid substance, that can be used on vegetation around campus. The worms reduce the volume of the organic matter by 90%, which has notable environmental and financial benefits: significantly reducing the proportion of waste that the university sends to landfill, and as a consequence of the composter’s central campus location, cutting the cost and footprint of transporting waste to be disposed of offsite.

Currently, the composter is digesting an average of 233 kilograms of organic material a week, including waste from the student’s union, bar, kitchens and halls of residence. The current composter has a capacity of 250 kilograms per week. Since the university is growing so quickly, to deal with an expected increase in organic waste, extra chambers may be bolted onto the side of the composer.

Yet the composter is not only performing a physical function on campus, it is also the focus of a behavioural programme that Katy hopes will see staff and students alike change their attitude towards recycling. Since the large and obvious industrial kit has been placed in the centre of campus, it is used as a focal point for all things environmental. For this reason, Katy is keen to keep the graphics fresh and eye-catching, and in line with those of other university schemes. Display boards bolted to the side of the composter tell the story of the worms and process within, serving as a talking point for the many campus tours that pass the site.

“The central location of the composter is a great way to introduce the university’s sustainability projects at open days,” Katy said. “Part of this project is about preparing new students for life on campus, and the presence of the composter serves as a way to raise the university’s other environmental projects, such as the allotments available for students to grow their own fruit and vegetables, along with a herb garden we have provided near the halls of residence.”

Does Katy have any advice she would give to someone looking into a similar project?

“It’s all about getting the timing right: The timing was right for us, with the changes in services provided by the local council, and because at the same time we were launching another behavioural change project.

“You have to be careful planning these things: Realise that however carefully you do plan, you will inevitably have to make changes along the way, so be willing to reflect back. On the behavioural side, if you’re asking others to change, you have to make sure that you can change too.”

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