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It's not easy being green; University of Iowa Hospitals try composting

A longtime composting program in Iowa City is about to gain a major participant; the dining halls at the state's largest hospital. Iowa Public Radio's Durrie Bouscaren looks at how landfills are turning food waste into a smelly source of garden soil.

At the Iowa City landfill, there are tall rows of compost; a goulash of food waste and lawn trimmings. Each pile is about the size of a city bus, but it’s the smell that you notice first. When it’s cold, you can see steam coming off of the mounds.

“It’s a hot commodity, no pun intended!” said Jen Jordan, the landfill’s Recycling Coordinator, Jen Jordan. The landfill charges $10 a ton for the compost, which Iowa City gardeners cart away every season. They’ve sold out for the past three years.  

The landfill will soon see an influx of more material, from the cafeterias at the University of Iowa Hospitals. Two months ago, the hospital received criticism after the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported they threw out an average of 12 % of the food prepared in the dining halls, or about $181,000 worth of food in a year.

Officials at UIH say they’d like to move forward; they’re putting compost bins in the dining halls this week, cooking food in smaller batches, and trying to ramp up the amount of food they donate to charity.

“I think preparing food in a hospital environment is always complex,” said Scott Turner, an associate director for UIH. “There are two major groups we’re trying to support… the people coming through dining areas, and the people in the hospital,”

But food waste isn’t just a problem at large organizations where a lot of people eat; food makes up 14% of the waste going into Iowa landfills, and nationally, that n umber is higher—21 percent. The vast majority of those food scraps aren’t composted… only four public landfills in the state of Iowa have food composting programs.

At the Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa, Dan Nickey studies the reasons why there’s so much food waste.

“It’s a growing waste stream; it’s not going down like paper, cardboard, or wood waste," Nickey said. He says it’s not always easy for landfills to set up composting programs.

“It’s not necessarily profitable for the landfill to do food waste composting. Every time you try to take out waste streams and deal with them individually, it’s more labor intensive.”

Landfills also need to get a permit, and to comply with environmental regulations, to make sure pathogens and pesticides don’t get into the mix.

“Those conditions, facilities don’t want to deal with.”         

But Nickey says there’s growing interest to making large-scale composting more prevalent in Iowa.

The Iowa City landfill has included food waste in their compost since 2007.  But Jordan says that even with the money they make selling it, the program still operates at a loss.

“If we take in 10,000 tons a year of organics, including yard waste and food waste, in the end we might only be able to sell 5,000 tons,” Jordan said. “Just because it cooks down, it cooks down, all the way through.”