CU Denver is taking additional steps to reduce its carbon footprint and become a more eco-friendly campus—thanks to its students. When Lynx return in-person to campus on Jan. 31 for the spring semester, they will see new composting bins in all CU Denver buildings. The addition follows a 2020 vote by the Auraria Campus student body to raise annual student fees for sustainability by $3 per student. More than 70% of students voted yes. Funds are used specifically for the expansion of composting services and waste diversion efforts by the Auraria Sustainable Campus Program (ASCP), founded in 2004 to reduce campus’ ecological impact and dependence on fossil fuels. These waste diversion efforts help keep trash out of landfills, a major source of pollution.
“As we gradually complete this rollout in phases, we are prioritizing student spaces since the project was initiated and fully funded by the students,” said Rylee McCone, waste diversion specialist for the ASCP. “Deploying the new waste bins through CU Denver buildings is an essential step in making compost more accessible for a large portion of our student body, and we hope students continue to share the excitement with us as we get this program up and running.”
What Is Composting, and Why Is It Important?
Composting is the natural process of breaking down organic materials to fertilize and improve the soil. Items that can be composted include produce (without stickers), cooked and raw meat, fish, eggshells, napkins and paper bags, greasy pizza boxes, chopsticks, toothpicks, food packaging, and more. Together with yard waste, these food scraps currently make up more than 30 percent of what humans throw away, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Composting keeps these materials out of landfills, which release methane, one of the fastest growing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that is significantly affecting climate change.
Roughly five years ago, the ASCP kicked off a multi-phase waste diversion effort and composting initiative on campus and in some but not all buildings. Compost collected on the Auraria Campus is decomposed at a large industrial-scale site and sold to local farmers and stores. Jarrett Smith, CU Denver’s sustainability manager for Facilities Management, calls it a closed-loop system, meaning a product is used, recycled, and then made into a new product without ever entering a landfill. “We know that closed-loop systems are extremely efficient,” Smith said. “And composting is one of the easiest.”
Following strong support from the Auraria student body, the CU Denver Facilities Management team prioritized installing composting bins, purchased by the ASCP, in high-traffic areas in all CU Denver buildings, such as the Business School lobby and next to the coffee station in the Lawrence Street Center. The composting bins are labeled and attached to recycle and trash bins, similar to what is offered at Whole Foods Market and in some restaurants. Student fees cover the cost of the bins, and CU Denver’s Facilities Management administration has set aside funds to train its custodial staff on best waste diversion practices. “Students wanted this, they are helping fund this, and we as an administration want this to succeed,” Smith said.
Setting High Goals for Waste Diversion and Sustainability Practices at CU Denver
Today, CU Denver and the Auraria Campus divert between 15% and 20% of its waste to recycling and compost. That’s around the state’s average of about 16% but well below the national average of roughly 32%. The ASCP hopes to increase waste diversion on the Auraria Campus to 35% by 2024.
“This is an ambitious goal that I’m confident the campus community can meet with their enthusiasm for sustainable initiatives and this more robust waste infrastructure,” McCone said.
Waste diversion falls in line with other sustainability practices at CU Denver and on the Auraria Campus. The Business School, Student Commons, and Lola & Rob Salazar Student Wellness Center, for example, are all LEED Gold certified from the U.S. Green Building Council, meaning they were designed, constructed, and operated to maximize occupant health and productivity, use fewer resources, and reduce waste and negative environmental impacts. And in 2021, the ASCP and students and faculty in the College of Architecture and Planning’s ColoradoBuildingWorkshop program built the Auraria Bike Pavilions to promote non-motorized transportation for the Auraria Campus members. The ASCP funded the project and CAP students provided the labor.
Facilities Manager Stephen Rohlena calls the latest composting initiative a win-win for all involved. “The benefit is two-fold: you get the trash out of the landfill and you create solid soil for the community,” he said. “At the end of the day, as a CU Denver community, it’s the responsible thing to do.”