Office of Sustainability Turns Dining Hall Food Waste into Revenue Source

University staff members pose with a bag of the new compost Image by Ed Brennen
The university's, from left, Ruairi O'Mahony, Joanne Yestramski and Rich Lemoine use the new UML compost to plant flowers outside University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

From coffee mugs to phone cases to beach towels, there’s all kinds of UMass Lowell-branded merchandise available for those who want to show their River Hawk pride.

But the latest item is treading new ground: compost.

Thanks to a pilot program run by the Office of Sustainability, community members can now purchase bags of nutrient-rich compost generated from the university’s dining hall food waste for use at home. The 1-cubic-foot bags, adorned with the UML logo, are available for $9 apiece (plus tax).

“We’ve never done something like this before, and we needed to see if it was feasible,” says Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony, who worked with the university’s solid waste contractor, Casella Waste Systems, and its offshoot, Casella Organics, to produce 1,000 bags of compost this spring.

While the compost is currently only available online (the Office of Sustainability arranges a pickup location on campus once an order is placed), O’Mahony says the university hopes to ramp up the program next year – with up to 40,000 bags on the shelves of hardware stores and garden centers throughout the Merrimack Valley.

Joanne Yestramski helps plant flowers with the compost Image by Ed Brennen
Senior Vice Chancellor Joanne Yestramski uses a shovel to spread the university-generated compost in a flower bed at University Crossing.

“We want to tap into Casella Organics’ distribution network to make it a formal, publicly available program,” says O’Mahony, who notes that all revenue generated from the compost sales goes back to sustainability initiatives on campus. The university’s cost of bagging and transporting the compost back to campus is covered in the sales price, which means the program pays for itself.

The idea for the program came from Joanne Yestramski, senior vice chancellor for finance, operations and strategic planning. Last fall, while seeking some help for her struggling container plantings, she noticed her local garden center was selling bags of compost from the University of Vermont.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t we do that here?’” says Yestramski, who knew UMass Lowell had been composting food scraps from its dining halls since 2013. Last year, the university’s nationally recognized composting program diverted close to 250 tons of food waste from landfills.

A dining hall employee removes food waste to be composted Image by Ed Brennen
Food scraps from the university's dining halls take about nine months to transform into nutrient-rich compost.

Yestramski mentioned the idea to O’Mahony, who began working with Casella on the project. By late April, the UML compost bags were on campus.

“It just goes to show the UMass Lowell spirit,” Yestramski says. “All you have to do is have a little germ of an idea and people get it done in no time at all.”

Casella hauls the food pulp from the university dining halls to Brick Ends Farm in South Hamilton, Mass., where it takes about nine months to convert to high-grade compost. While some of that compost had already been coming back to campus to be used by the Facilities Management grounds team, the new program will make it more widely available.

“A lot of planting beds in the city don’t have good dirt, so the compost helps with the soil and gives nutrients to the plants,” says Joe LoBuono, the university’s associate director of operations and services.

The label on the bag of the UML compost Image by Ed Brennen
Bags of compost with the UML logo will soon be on the shelves of local stores.

One of the first places LoBuono and Grounds Operations Manager Erik Shaw will use the compost this summer is on the new pollinator habitat site behind the Allen House on South Campus.

“We’ll coat the whole hillside with our compost, which will really help the flowers bloom,” LoBuono says.

O’Mahony says one of the reasons the new compost program came together so quickly is the collaborative spirit that permeates the university.

“It’s a lot easier to do these things in partnership than in isolation,” says O’Mahony, who looks forward to seeing the UML-branded compost bags in stores soon.

“When you look at the amount of alumni in the Merrimack Valley, you have that instant brand recognition for the university,” he says. “It could be pretty popular.”