More than 81 tons of edible food is dumped in the trash every year at UT dining halls. This trash may soon be turned into compost treasure for local farmers who supply fresh produce to UT’s cafeterias.

For the past eight months, Meagan Jones, environmental specialist for the Division of Housing and Food Service, has researched methods to make the campus more sustainable through composting and using biodegradable products.

“The overall plan was that we don’t want to be throwing things into the trash that could be serving a better purpose,” Jones said.

Jones said composting with a Somat eCorect machine was the division’s most viable option in reusing discarded food. The machine dehydrates, heats and compresses leftover food into a tobacco-like substance that can be used as a soil amendment. In the proposed plan, this brown muck would be added to the compost pile of a local produce farmer and would eventually be used as fertilizer, she said.

A few small hotels and restaurants already use the machine, but UT is the first university to test the machine, which has been operating in Kinsolving Dining Hall on a trial basis since last semester, Jones said.

“The Somat machine is definitely the direction we are looking to go in just because itgives us the most control,” Jones said.

The machine fits inside the cafeteria’s dish rooms, so food waste does not have to be transported before it is decomposed. This saves the extra cost of transportation and additional labor, both of which are necessary for every other composting processes Jones is considering, she said.

“We found a piece of equipment we really like, and it works in our facility,” Jones said. “This is a big investment, so you want to make sure you’re making the right decision before you jump in.”

Food services have already taken strides to increase sustainability by using biodegradable dishes and cutlery. The green products are made from corn, sugar cane, potato starch and, in the future, wood mulch.

Darla Stewart, purchasing procurement manager for the Division of Housing and Food Service, said the biodegradable flatware is more costly than traditional plastic but said many of the dishes are less expensive.

“It is very close to breaking even,” Stewart said. “It comes out to just pennies per customer that the cost is more than regular plastic.”

The division makes up for the additional cost by cutting corners in other places, Stewart said. For example, food services discontinued the use of plastic to-go lids in Jester City Market, Littlefield Cafe and Cypress Bend and now saves $40,000 per year. This cut virtually pays for the green products, she said.

Jones said the biodegradable tableware will be decomposed in the proposed Somat machine along with cafeteria food waste. Plastic items like straws and candy wrappers are not biodegradable and may present a concern if the proposed composting program is implemented, since the waste put into the Somat machines must be 98 percent biodegradable, she said.

“It’s just going to take a lot of awareness of the different products and what makes our biodegradable products different from something plastic in order to make the program work,” Jones said.

To purchase a food decomposer for each dining hall, food services would have to come up with almost $200,000, Stewart said.

“I know that the University is very strongly in favor of composting, but in this tough economy we have to start x-ing things out of the budget that aren’t as important to students as other things,” Stewart said.

Stewart said that because of collaboration with the Sustainable Food Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes local farming, 10 percent of the produce used at UT comes from local farmers.

Andrew Smiley, farm direct projects director at the center, said the group works closely with UT’s food services to find Texas farmers who can supply the University’s cafeterias.

“I am very impressed by UT’s forethought,” Smiley said. “Their intention to close that loop of buying food from local farmers and then reducing the waste put in landfills and putting it back in the farm to grow the crops that they purchase is very commendable.”