The University of Arizona Compost Cats organization was honored by the EPA on Thursday for its work diverting food waste from landfill into recyclable material.
The student organization was recognized with the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge award for diverting more than 3.4 million pounds of organic waste into compost in 2015, and more than 10.4 million pounds since its inception as an organization five years ago.
“A third of all the food in our country ends up in landfills and only about five percent of that is turned into beneficial products,” said Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest Region, who presented the award. “This is an incredible example of what can be done when there’s a partnership thinking about how to make this work.”
Partners with the group, run by the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, are the city of Tucson, and the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Co-operative Farm, where food waste is taken to be processed and converted into usable compost.
The farm allows the students to use its land and equipment in exchange for compost for the farm’s crops.
Compost Cats co-founder Chester “Chet” Phillips says the farm was instrumental in helping the organization grow from a few compost bins around the UA student unions to an operation regularly employing about 15 students.
“What’s cool about the program is there are a lot of different things that are expected of us,” says Emily Soderberg, 22. “That includes farm work, or you could do anything like events coordinating, data coordinating, sales, we really do everything that is required in a business. There’s very few people who just have one job.”
Soderberg is a graduating senior in sustainable built environments.
After graduating, Soderberg will embark on an AmeriCorps VISTA Fellowship working with the Food Recovery Network, which she says is a continuation of the work she’s done as a Compost Cat.
That reflects one of the most rewarding elements of the program for Phillips, who has seen a total of about 50 Compost Cats members come through the program during its lifetime.
“The value, I think, is really in student training,” Phillips said. “They really do all of the work.”
Originally funded by a UA Green Fund grant, the Compost Cats are working toward economic sustainability as well.
Phillips said about two-thirds of the group’s annual $130,000 budget is covered by selling compost, collecting fees for hauling food waste and for working public events like Tucson Meet Yourself, where members gather food waste in recycle bins.
This year, a partnership with the city of Tucson will increase the number of events the group will work collecting food waste. The group is also planning to create enough compost for broader sales to the general public.
“We are about to launch our bagged compost sales in a big way,” Phillips says. ”Coming soon in stores near you: Compost Cats bagged compost.”