COLUMBIA — Apple cores, half-eaten sandwiches and meat scraps from last night’s steak might end up on the dinner table again.
Tim Reinbott, the superintendent of MU’s Bradford Research Farm, will start turning food waste from MU dining halls into compost. The compost will be used to grow vegetables at the farm that will eventually be sold back to MU for its dining program.
The key piece in the plan is a composting facility that has been under construction at the farm, 4968 Rangeline Road, since July, Reinbott said.
When completed in November, the process of breaking food scraps into fertilizer will begin.
The food waste will be transported daily from the dining halls and mixed with manure and bedding material from MU Animal Sciences and Veterinary Medicine, Reinbott said.
“You mix it up in the right ratio, then you have the right microbes, and they start to break it down,” he said.
As the microbes work on the substance, heat is generated, killing the bacteria. In time, when the temperature drops, there will be a fully composted material, he said.
The compost facility is aerated to speed up the process, Reinbott said. Adding air stimulates the microorganisms in the mix, which helps generate the heat needed to kill the harmful bacteria.
“The pile method, that’s going to take six months. This is going to be within a month, a very quick turnover,” Reinbott said.
The facility at the farm is 2,400 square feet divided into four stalls with 5-foot cement walls. At the current stage, the building does not have a roof and looks like a horse stable in an open field.
When the food waste is delivered, it is dumped into the stalls. Fist-sized holes in the back wall allow for the tubes to aerate the piles that ultimately become the fertilizer for the farm's gardens.
The plan was Reinbott’s brainchild, said Eric Cartwright, executive chef for Campus Dining Services. In fact, Reinbott has been working on the plan for about two years, but he lacked the funding to build a composting facility until last spring.
In spring 2010, MU received a $35,000 grant from the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District to pay for the construction. In July, Campus Dining Services added another $35,000, Reinbott said.
“(Campus Dining Services) is very progressive and interested in doing something with this compost,” he said.
With that money, the project moved forward.
The dining services, meanwhile, are trying to work out the logistics of food waste collection, pickup and transport.
“It’s exciting,” Cartwright said. “We’ve done various studies on how much waste we can capture. It’s tons, multiple tons.”
Rollins Hall currently has a pulper that reduces the volume of food waste and compresses it into a tuna fish-like paste, Cartwright said. However, there has been no use for all that food waste on a large scale.
Currently, dining services pays to have its waste taken to the city landfill. Turning the waste into compost for recycling is a big cost-saver, Cartwright said.
Dining services hopes to offset the cost of building the facility in about three years.
“We can recover those costs, and we can contribute to making a product that’s usable by the farm, that’s usable in research,” Cartwright said.
This project will help dining services reduce waste as well, he said.
Another benefit to this program is carbon footprint reduction, Reinbott said. He stands next to a pit at the research farm where shallow corn roots were exposed.
“In Iowa, you have corn that spreads much deeper, ” he said. “But in Missouri, the soil has lost so much carbon.”
Using waste to grow food helps capture the carbon in the atmosphere and puts it back into the soil.
Reinbott said this is the first time a university has created a project that completes the entire food cycle.
“Nobody’s put it all together, with the whole cycle,” he said. “And that’s what’s important. Taking food waste and growing food.”
Moreover, this provides a good research opportunity for both undergraduate and graduate students, Reinbott said.
Bethany Stone, associate professor of biological sciences at MU, toured the farm with her class earlier this month. She said some of her students want to be involved in the program.
“As a faculty member, it is fantastic to see Bradford Farms practicing what we in the classrooms have been teaching,” she said. “Next semester it is going to be easier to talk to the students about reducing our carbon footprint. I will be able to provide this cutting-edge example of how this is being done on our campus.”
Reinbott said he might have students do projects such as comparing the time it takes food waste to break down by the aerated method as opposed to the old-school pile method. He wants the students to experiment various methods and get engaged as much as possible.
“Turning waste into food,” Reinbott said, smiling. “It’s a science and an art, too."