Sarah Swiersz, senior interdisciplinary studies major and director of SGA’s innovation council, was working on a grant proposal in May to secure funding for a system to compost food waste at UCF. But she scrapped the plan when an idea struck while visiting her friend at the University of Southern Florida. On her visit, she learned USF had an anaerobic digester, a system that converts food to either gas or fertilizer.
She soon devised a new plan with Mohsina Mahmood, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and member of SGA’s innovation council, to introduce anaerobic digestion to UCF, and was awarded $10,000 by the VOLO foundation, who provides funding for sustainability projects.
“We hate food waste,” Swierz said. “We hate how wasteful this is, and we want to do something about it.”
The 12-person innovation council is working with the City of Orlando, who contracted with Harvest Power, for implementing a program with the Volo Vista grant, which is a private family foundation.
Harvest Power is an anaerobic digestion facility that services Central Florida. It takes food waste and turns it into energy through a bio-diesel generator.
“Anaerobic digestion is more beneficial then composting because it provides more than just nutrients but also creates energy for multiple uses,” Mahmood said.
Swiersz and Mahmood said their first step is inspiring a “culture shift” at UCF. The shift, according to Swiersz, is to change the mentality of the student body and faculty through education.
The two connected with the City of Orlando’s Jady Chen, who is an environmental study major and a food waste associate for Greenworks sustainability office, for insight on the successful implementation of their food waste program for five years.
Chen said the digester has bacteria that breaks food down into a liquid, then the methane gas that is released is harnessed through a biodiesel generator and is used to generate electricity.
Swiersz and Mahmood sought guidance from an environmental professor, Debra Reinhart, who eventually became the project mentor to help in the anaerobic digester project proposal.
Reinhart said UCF’s food waste is taken by Waste Management and is landfilled. She said because there aren’t regulations requiring gas methane collection from decomposing food waste, none of it is collected and in turn pollutes the environment.
Students and faculty can drive their food to one of the sustainability office food-drop off locations. The city has a public food drop off where residents can bring their waste. The sites operated by City of Orlando are Lake Nona, Paramore, or the Audubon Farmer’s Market.
Brittany McPeak, City of Orlando sustainability project coordinator, said people have grown out of touch with what the food process demands, and that the process has the most significant environmental ramifications.
“You spend energy to grow food, energy to harvest, energy to transport it, energy to store it, and then energy to cook it,” McPeak said. “And now we’re going to throw it away.”
About 25-30% of all food globally that is produced is wasted, which makes up 8-10% of human-caused carbon emissions according to (IPCC 2019), an intergovernmental panel that provides reports on climate change.
Reinhart said it would be best to first create a contract with Harvest Power, and utilize their facility as the UCF campuses get acclimated to using a food waste program. Then begin the process of anaerobic digestion to campus that is scaled to fit the demand. She said it would be appropriate to offer it to the community as well.
McPeak said UCF also could create a contract with Harvest Power independently, as the City of Orlando did.
The concern this fall, Swiersz said, was connecting with all the different facilities on campus. Then gradually the student body on the importance of separating food waste from other types of waste because of the issues contamination can pose for contracting facilities or bringing the digester to campus.
The final plans in implementing accessibility of food waste bins to the large student body haven’t been decided yet.
McPeak has reached out to UCF’s downtown campus as it’s within the city limits about implementing the food waste program offered by the city, but due to construction, conversations have been halted.
Orlando’s sustainability office’s food waste program that launched in 2015 was based on a promotional campaign to increase awareness on the positive or negative impact of where people put their leftovers, said Chris Castro, a UCF alumnus, and director of sustainability at the City of Orlando.
In addition to the public’s awareness of the impact of landfills, McPeak said there needs to be more recycling infrastructure in terms of more facilities and higher capacities.
Of all of Orlando’s garbage, 30-40 percent is food McPeak said. The city’s current goals are to make compost locations more accessible.
Castro said his goal in the next five to 10 years is to offer a curbside food waste collection program. The long-term goal Castro said, is eventually diverting all of Orlando’s food waste from a landfill.
“In the long-term vision is for us to achieve our goal of zero waste in landfills by 2040,” Castro said. “The goal that we set out for is that all products that we’re consuming end up being recycled or refurbished.”
Castro said the most efficient way to implement a campus program would be to start with UCF’s dining services in a controlled manner. Castro suggested the restaurant cooks should begin the program and then UCF students and faculty.
Anaerobic digestion has not yet been widely adopted in the South Eastern U.S., Orlando is the only city in the South East that has an anaerobic digester.
The city of Orlando charges $140 for twice per week pickup for their five food waste bins at Valencia College’s West Campus.
Castro said a successful program requires the support of faculty, transportation staff, the food service provider, and on-campus student organizations.
“We have to redefine the word garbage,” Castro said. “Garbage is a bunch of commodities. They’re a bunch of resources that we had turned into a product.”
Correction: A previous version of this article had Mohsina Mahmood’s last name spelled incorrectly. It has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of her name.