Every Monday, a Prairieland Dairy truck stops at Nebraska Innovation Campus before the sun rises to collect 500 pounds of waste that can’t be recycled but is too valuable to be thrown away.
The organic waste -- which includes everything from food scraps to paper -- is collected by the Hickman dairy every week to be mixed with cow manure and turned into compost for backyards, gardens and flower pots.
“We’ve been collecting organic waste for about five years now, but business has really been picking up heavy this year,” said the dairy’s operations manager, Jacob Hickey.
“We bought our own garbage compactor that goes around (Lincoln) and picks up waste from the local grocery stores, Innovation Campus and a few other stops,” he added.
More than 2 million pounds of organic waste goes to Prairieland Dairy’s compost pile every month, Hickey said, all of it diverted from Lancaster County landfills.
Kate Engel, community engagement and operations manager at Innovation Campus, said working with Prairieland Dairy fell right in line with the research park’s goal of becoming a zero-waste facility.
“We’re working toward not needing to send anything to the landfill,” Engel said. “Everywhere you go on campus you’ll see three trash cans labeled clearly: One for landfill waste, one for compostable materials and one for single-stream recycling.”
A TEDx event with 400 attendees at Innovation Campus in June served as a test run for how well the organic waste program could work, Engel said.
At the end of the boxed-lunch meal provided to those in attendance, Innovation Campus directed food scraps be thrown into the organic waste bins and the plastic boxes into recycling bins.
The only trash thrown away was the mustard and mayo packets that came with the lunch.
“People were excited to not have to throw the whole box into the landfill bin,” Engel said. “We want people to keep feeling comfortable throwing items away in the proper receptacle and will keep inviting people to be a part of those efforts.”
The next test will come when Innovation Campus's population grows from 250 faculty, staff and graduate students to include private industry, as well as the undergraduate food science students who will take classes there.
The organic waste and composting efforts could also expand beyond Innovation Campus, which as part of its zero-waste pledge uses effluent water from the nearby Theresa Street Wastewater Plant to heat and cool the 250-acre park.
Thien Chau, president of UNL’s student government, said student leaders have discussed incorporating organic waste disposal on City and East campuses as well.
An environmental studies class looked at how organic waste collection might look at the dining and residence halls, as well as the student union, Chau said.
“It’s something that our student government’s Environmental Sustainability Committee will look at this year,” he said. “There is a lot of talk about our zero-waste potential, whether that’s at athletic events or at one of the residence halls.”
At a Husker football game last fall, Chau said student researchers determined nearly 70 percent of the waste collected was recycled -- well above the national average of 35 percent -- leading him to believe there is a future for the program.
“I think reaching zero waste is very achievable for UNL,” he said.
Hickey said Prairieland Dairy is interested in its own sustainability measures, as well as helping other organizations realize theirs.
“The landfill is filling up at an alarming rate,” he said. “Statistics have shown that 80 percent of the waste put into the landfill is compostable -- our goal is to take that out of the landfill and turn it into a useful product.”
He said education and awareness will make that possible.
“People have a hard time understanding you can compost all of your food waste, even in a commercial setting,” Hickey said. “Our goal is to better the soils in Nebraska and make the soils healthier for the next generation.”