Sarah Appleby, 19, writes down the weight of the bin that Jessica Thompson, 21, is weighing. The two are part of the University of Arizona Compost Cats, and they pick up scraps from the Student Union and campus-area restaurants.

MAMTA POPAT / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

A group of University of Arizona students sees a lot of value in slimy, icky, stinky stuff: banana peels, coffee grounds, leftover bread, grass clippings and even horse manure.

The Compost Cats have been collecting those items and turning them into compost since January, and their business is growing. The group is led by students Alex Harris, Polly Juang and Rachel Maxwell.

"We're trying to be more environmentally conscious about the decisions we make, and composting is an easy way to do that," said Maxwell, a senior environmental science student.

Composting keeps certain trash items out of landfills, and compost can be mixed into soil to feed plants, she said.

It was hard to get the project off the ground due to funding woes and red tape, said Juang, who graduated in May and is starting a graduate school program in biosystems engineering. Seed money from student fees got the project off the ground.

"We were just really happy everything turned out all right," she added.

Now Compost Cats employs five students to collect food waste from the Student Union on campus, plus clippings from campus landscaping projects, and puts the waste in large piles at the Campus Agriculture Center near East Roger Road and North Campbell Avenue.

The pile is 4 or 5 feet tall and maybe 50 feet long, Juang said. Compost smells like dirt, not garbage, she added.

For now, the students are donating their compost to the UA for use in campus flower beds, Maxwell said. They're donating some to local nurseries, too. But the big goal is to bag and sell the compost to retailers to cover the cost of the student workers and their equipment, she said.

The students also are adding more waste-collection sites, with a special interest in university-area coffee bars and restaurants.

"It was really great getting the community involved," Juang said.

In the future, the students would like to be able to accept home food waste, too, she said.

"We're just trying to set a good example out there in the community," Maxwell said. "The university is doing its part to be environmentally conscious."

On StarNet: Read Becky Pallack's blog on higher education in Tucson at go.azstarnet.com/campuscorrespondent

Compost Cats restaurant partners

• Arizona Student Unions

• Bentley's House of Coffee & Tea

• Beyond Bread

• Coffee X Change

• Lovin' Spoonfuls Vegetarian Restaurant

• Raging Sage Coffee Roasters

• Subway

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 807-8012.