Industrial Ecology on Campus

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The University of Ottawa is going to start using mixed paper products as a bulking agent in their mechanical composting system to help drive the campus towards zero waste.

Every once and a while we have the opportunity to do something wonderfully poetic. But before I get too far ahead of myself, which I often do, let's talk about Industrial Ecology.

Rather than bore you with a technical definition of what it means, industrial ecology can be summed up by saying that the waste from one process becomes the food for another. And although this happens in nature all the time, industrial ecology focuses on when this happens in an industrial setting.

Take for example meat processing plants that often sell the undesirable parts of the animals to pet food suppliers. Okay, maybe not my best example but it is true. Or how about lumber producers that take excess wood shavings to make paper. There are many examples of how the waste from one process can kick start another.

Being a sustainability person, you can imagine how happy I get when industrial ecology happens here on campus.So here is that little bit of wonderful that I eluded to earlier. Recently our waste diversion coordinator acquired an industrial paper shredder which she is going to use to create "bulking agent".

Bulking agent is what we call the stuff that we put into our mechanical composter to reduce the water content inside the machine. When we put organics into our composter, the water inside it evaporates out and giant puddles are created inside the machine itself.These puddles slow down the composting process so we have to add dry materials to sop up that water.

Currently we use wood chips as a bulking agent. But wood chips are expensive so we thought about using newspaper. This would be a good idea except that newspaper notoriously bunches together and doesn't compost if it is clumped up (there is no space for air to get in between the clumps and compost). BUT, if the paper is shredded it creates clusters of air and it can be composted. Even better, we could shred our cardboard and create even more air pockets.

I know this doesn't seem like a revolutionary thing to do but it will reduce dramatically the amount of money we spend on bulking agent and it will put our recyclables to good use (making dirt!). We will start testing materials to compost in the new year. Until then, visions of newspaper plums will dance in my head.


~ jON - campus sustainability manager
photo credit - jonathan rausseo

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