Composting and Recycling Efforts Recognized with Casella Sustainability Leadership Award

UML staff members plant flowers using compost generated from dining halls Image by Ed Brennen
Compost generated from dining hall food scraps is used in campus landscaping, including in this flower bed outside University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

The more UMass Lowell puts into its composting and recycling efforts, the more it continues to get back.

From turning food scraps into compost for campus landscaping to being the first campus in the Northeast to adopt a system that turns organic waste into renewable energy, the university has reaped numerous benefits from its recycling and composting programs, while emerging as a national leader in sustainability in higher education.

For those efforts, UML has been named “Innovator of the Year” by Casella Waste Systems, its regional solid waste contractor. The award recognizes the university for the new and creative ways that it sustains and conserves resources and diverts waste destined for landfills.

Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony accepted the honor on behalf of the university at the first-ever (virtual) Casella Sustainability Leadership Awards. The award, he said, is a direct result of Chancellor Jacquie Moloney’s commitment to climate neutrality and sustainability.

“We are continuously encouraged to be innovative and to try new ideas,” O’Mahony said. “The fact that we are recognized for that is really reflective of the culture that exists at our university.”

A dining hall employee cleans food scraps off of plates Image by Ed Brennen
The university generated nearly 280 tons of compost in 2019 from campus dining halls and its two anaerobic digesters.

Working with the Casella Organics division, UML composts food scraps at every dining hall on campus, as well as from its cafes, food courts, the Tsongas Center and the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. The nutrient-rich compost is used in gardens and green spaces across campus, and it has even been sold to the UML community in a pilot program run by the Office of Sustainability.

UML is also the first college campus in the region, and second in the country, to install Grind2Energy food waste recycling systems. Located at Cumnock Marketplace and the Tsongas Center, the system converts food scraps into a slurry that is stored in a 3,600-gallon holding tank. The liquid waste is pumped into a truck and hauled to an anaerobic digestion facility, where captured methane is converted into renewable energy. The remaining nutrient-rich organic material can be used as fertilizer.

In 2019, the university generated about 280 tons of compost, according to Tianna Begonis, UML’s account manager at Casella.

Innovator of the Year was one of seven awards presented by Casella, which provides waste and recycling services to 150,000 clients in more than 40 states. 

“A more sustainable world will take many more organizations doing the work that you do, with the commitment that you have all demonstrated,” Casella Chairman and CEO John Casella told the award recipients. “Your leadership is important.”

In presenting the award, Casella Associate Brand Manager Abby Marsh also noted the research work on plastics recycling being conducted in the Plastics Engineering Department.

“UMass Lowell has earned a reputation as an innovator. They’re always willing to try something new to advance sustainability,” Marsh said. “We look forward to many more experiments and innovations in the years to come.”

The university’s efforts, O’Mahony noted, require “a tremendous amount of coordination between different departments.” He highlighted the work of Executive Director of Administrative Services Thomas Miliano and Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management and Planning Jean Robinson in making the initiatives possible.

The university’s sustainability efforts were also recognized recently by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. In its 2020 Sustainable Campus Index, UML ranked fifth in the area of waste reduction among more than 650 higher education institutions worldwide. 

UML also ranked No. 1 for “Wellbeing and Work” — a category that recognizes student and employee wellness programs and employee compensation, satisfaction, health and safety. 

The index recognizes top-performing sustainable colleges and universities overall and in 17 impact areas, as measured by the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS).