COLUMBIA — It begins with students putting their dining trays on the conveyor belt at Rollins Dining Hall. From there, food leftovers and napkins are sprayed off plates and float down a reservoir into a pulper, which chops and spin-dries the waste before it comes out of a chute into a trash bag.
After that, MU graduate student Adam Saunders and his class of students and volunteers pick up the scraps, lug them onto a bicycle trailer and bike from Rollins' loading dock to the Saint Joseph Community Garden, where that food waste will turn into something much more valuable: compost.
Twice a day for about 10 weeks, students will pick up food scraps from Rollins, combine them with manure from the Stephens College stables and mix them together in a composting bin. The compost produced will help fertilize the Saint Joseph and Sustain Mizzou community gardens, both located at the corner of Saint Joseph and Ash streets.
Instead of disposing of food waste as Rollins had previously done, Saunders' program reduces the weight of trash by about 2,000 pounds per week, creates a marketable product that would make Community Gardens in Columbia more productive and, in the end, leads to better gardens and more nutrient-rich food.
"We put nutrients back in the ground instead of into a landfill," Saunders said.
In addition to the community benefits, it improves the university's image regarding sustainability, Saunders said.
"We have a chance to affect the way the university runs," Saunders said. "We push the envelope."
These benefits have encouraged Saunders to think about expanding the program to include more dining halls and get more of this resource into the gardens in Columbia that need it.
The program has "a lot of growing to do to accommodate (more dining halls), but it's conceivable," Saunders said.
In order to expand, other dining halls need to purchase food pulpers, the machines that chop up and dry the food scraps. Rollins has had a pulper for 12 years, and Saunders is attempting to show that pulpers would be a justifiable expense in all the dining halls if the waste is properly made into compost.
"The problem with our society is that we think in quarterly profits about everything," Saunders said. "It's a mentality that's very destructive. We need to think in the long term."
While the program is in its beginning stages, it is still evolving, Saunders said.
The program started as an idea Saunders developed with his roommates. The three conducted a trial run in the spring where they picked up scraps that were normally thrown away.
"During that time we realized we could do this next year as a service learning class," Saunders said. "Students could help us so the three of us aren't doing it 13 times a week. We could spread the load across a lot of people and educate people."
This class, which is funded by a $4,000 MU Information Technology grant, will use scales, thermometers and portable computers to track the weights and temperatures throughout the process.
Saunders has also applied for additional grants in order to conduct a 3-year, in-depth soil study, which would analyze the nutrient content of the waste and soil created by the composting. Such a study could lead to the publication of articles about sustainable living in academic journals.
For now, Saint Joseph Community Garden and Sustain Mizzou's garden, one of the Community Garden Coalition's gardens, are the main beneficiaries of the project. They will use the compost to improve the nutrients in the soil and for further growth.
Saunders said he wants to use this compost to help more than the Saint Joseph and Sustain Mizzou gardens. His ambition is to improve the productivity and success of community gardening in all of Columbia, he said.
"We need to grow more food locally, in our urban areas," Saunders said. "One of the big problems I've seen with community gardening is that there is not enough compost added to the gardens. Soil sustainability is absolutely key. You have to think about the soil before you think about the garden."
Saunders said his reasoning for this urgency is the inherent fragility of the complicated supply line involving trucks, trains, boats and airplanes the U.S. depends on to provide food for its cities.
"We have a big problem with food security in our country," Saunders said. "It's reliant on cheap and available oil and a functioning infrastructure. If this system is compromised, we will not have food delivered to the cities of America. We are far too dependent on foreign resources."
Saunders said his project requires few overhead expenses after the initial investments for tools and supplies. It only requires the time of students or volunteers and a coordinator, he said.
And Sustain Mizzou President Pat Margherio says the undertaking could have no better leader.
"Adam is the most passionate person I know about gardening and this project. He has the drive that's going to make this a big success," Margherio said. "He's leading by example."
The students benefiting from Saunders' efforts also recognize the singularity of the program.
"This is the first class of its kind," said sophomore Natalie Jenkins. "Everything is very raw and energy efficient. I was very interested in the hands-on group effort to be more sustainable."
There certainly are few other opportunities to see a teacher standing over a fetid pile of compost and simply saying, "Beautiful."