Taking the initiative

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Two U of R students are hoping their environmental initiative will start a movement

Dietrich Neu
Features Editor

After taking their ideas to university administration and receiving a lukewarm response, two University of Regina students are taking an environmental initiative into their own hands.

With the help of the University of Regina Students’ Union, Kay Niedermayer and Jocelynn Marsden have started a large student-run composting operation, which is currently recycling a massive portion of the Owl’s food waste. However, the two estimate that, with a backing from the U of R administration and a comprehensive program, the operation could potentially recycle 20- to 30-per-cent of the school’s entire waste products.

Several studies on composting have concluded that it significantly reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and waste sent to landfills, while simultaneously producing quality fertilizer for plants and gardens.

As students concerned about environmental initiatives, both Niedermayer and Marsden saw composting as an opportunity to improve the U of R‘s recycling program.

“I started to realize how almost every substantial university in the country has a composting program of some kind,” Niedermayer said. “We felt that the U of R was really lacking in that respect, and that was an area where we [as students] could step up.”

The University of Regina has taken heat for its recycling program for some time. With low amounts of recycling drop-offs, combined with high amounts of food waste and vending machines, students frequently toss recyclables in the trash due the proximity of a recycle bin. Recognizing this deficiency, Niedermayer and Marsden saw the opportunity to use composting as a means of efficiently recycling large amounts of waste in a short amount of time.

“After some research, I discovered that 20- to 30-per-cent of the average university’s waste is organic material that can be composted,” Niedermayer said. “That is a substantial amount. With composting, we can significantly cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions, and our total waste as a whole.”

While the student-run operation is currently recycling a nice portion of the Owl’s eligible food waste, producing eight to ten pounds of compost each week, Niedermayer believes, for the program to reach its full potential, she will need help from administration to create a more comprehensive strategy.

Niedermayer would like to see the program evolve into something resembling the composting initiatives that other major schools around the country have implemented for years. Indeed, 15 major universities around Canada, including McGill, Concordia, UBC, and the University of Saskatchewan, have full-fledged, administration-supported programs that process as much as five tonnes of waste daily.

However, as Niedermayer found out, drumming up support from local administration has been an arduous and slow process.

After spending several months contacting members of parking management and facilities management, Niedermayer finally booked an interview with U of R administration. Unfortunately, administration was hesitant to support the project.

“I guess another student had tried to do a similar project in their office and didn’t do a good job,” she said. “There were flies and mice, and I think they were worried about that happening again. I think they were hesitant because they had a bad experience in the past. They said that they would contact me if they could find a space, but they never did.”

Despite facilities management’s reservations about the project, both Niedermayer and Marsden decided to take the task into their own hands, hoping that getting the project off the ground would highlight the benefits of the project and turn some heads.

Unfortunately, the two ran into another roadblock. Niedermayer and Marsden use a composting method called vermicomposting.

Vermicomposting is an indoor composting technique that utilizes large amounts of red wiggler worms to eat the compost materials and break down the larger components into fertile soil used to grow gardens and other plant life.

Unfortunately, due to the scale of Niedermayer’s operation, large amounts of worms were needed and the city simply did not have the supply. After visiting local stores, searching usedregina.com, and contemplating shipping options, both she and Marsden decided they would have to travel to Edmonton themselves to get the supplies they needed.

After renting a car and travelling to and from Edmonton, the campus composting project was underway. It would not be long before they hit another bump in the road.

With the help of URSU, Marsden and Niedermayer located their composting project to the tabling room in the Riddell Centre; shortly after, facilities management contacted them and informed them that the project would have to be moved.

“We started using that space because it was out of the way and easily ventilated,” Niedermayer said.  “No one was using the space, so we thought that it would be fine. But facilities management contacted us and said it was an improper use of space.”

The project was then moved, twice – first to the back of the URSU building and then finally to its current location.

Although the university has been slow to show support for the composting initiative, Niedermayer believes the project is in its best interest and is optimistic partnership can be worked out in the near future.

“I think that it is in the university’s best interest to support us in this endeavour, and take it one step further, and make it bigger,” she said. “Because, really, by reducing the amount of waste that the university produces and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is really making our university a more inviting place to be.”

As mentioned earlier, other universities around the country have had composting initiative in place for years. Many of them are large-scale operations, which use the full resources of the university and students to maximize their efficiency.

It is a good move for universities looking to attract potential students. A study conducted by the Innovative Research Group in 2011 concluded that the environment was the second-most important issue to Canadians, losing only to healthcare and winning out over social issues and the economy. Additional studies have concluded that as age decreases, support for environmental initiative increases.

While Niedermayer is still hoping to develop a more comprehensive program with university administration, she is also pleasantly surprised with the support she has received from the students’ union, her managers at the Owl, and other student groups on campus.

“URSU, and the management at the Owl, have been really supportive,” she said. “In the beginning I felt like I was probably going to hit a lot of walls. So it really meant a lot to me that all of my managers at the Owl really got behind the project and said, ‘No matter what, we are going to make this work.’

“URSU also supported us in our trip to Edmonton. They supported us with finding a space when we were having problems in the beginning. I think that URSU is really committed to doing whatever they can in terms of the environment, and it shows.”

While the support from URSU and her managers at the Owl has been invaluable, Niedermayer is not slowing down. Last week, with the help of a Green Party affiliate student group called UR Greens, she has started an online petition to attempt to generate support for the initiative.

“UR Greens is a club on campus that really wanted to start working on some environmental projects,” she said. “They approached me about starting to work with this program as well.”

The aim of the petition is to allow students to support the compost project, as well as discuss other environmental issues. Niedermayer hopes that, if she can get a dialog going and get students who care about the environment to put their names out there, she can present a more powerful case to the university.

“My hope is that with the petition, we can show the university just how many people on campus care about environmental sustainability,” she said.

“I talked to some people at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. They both have composting programs and sustainability initiatives that are reflective of student movements demanding that their university respond to this.

“So, I walked away from those discussions thinking that, ‘If we can get a group of students together to say that they care about this, that would be huge. If we could get a hundred, or a thousand, students to sign this and say that they want the university to respond, then our argument would carry more weight.’

“I’m really excited to see the response and hear what other students have to say.”

Aside from creating a petition, Niedermayer wants to form co-operatives with other student groups on campus to work together.

“I’m open to anyone who wants to get involved,” she said. “I’m also going to start contacting campus clubs to see if there is anyone else who is interested. I really think it would be great if, next year, we could start a club that specifically focuses on environmental issues … but I know there are a lot of clubs that are inadvertently affected by the environment, or who care about the environment. I think that it would be really great if we could get a coalition of campus clubs together, that would be really fantastic.”

According to Niedermayer, although the compost project itself is a worthwhile environmental activity, ,it is by no means the end of what she hopes to be an environmental movement. Instead, she hopes that it will get the ball rolling.

“This project is definitely not meant to just be an isolated project,” she stated. “But, we think that if we can establish a comprehensive compost program, then we are one step closer to establishing a comprehensive recycling program.

“It is also about acknowledging the amount of waste that we are producing, educating people on their environmental impact, and how they can reduce it; we would like a get a dialog going between students.”

While Niedermayer does admit that she does not want to stretch herself too thin, too quickly, the overall goal of her initiative does not appear to be a single compost heap. Her goals are higher. She is trying to start something that will continue at the U of R long after she is gone: a co-operation between students and administration to make campus a greener place.

“It could go anywhere,” she said. “That’s why I’m really excited to hear what other student have to say, because I think that it’s going to be a student movement.”

For students who want to get involved in Niedermayer’s project, she can be found at the URSU office or working at the Owl on campus.


1 comment

  1. Saskboy 19 July, 2012 at 09:14

    I vermicomposted for over a year on campus about 3 years ago, then was told I couldn't do so any longer. I pressed against the decision for a little while, and then let it slide, waiting for a more eager administration. There's been some staff turnover in the area that denied it previously, so now may be the time to make another effort to pull this university into the 21st Century, kicking and screaming with lukewarm support for necessary initiatives long overdue.

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