Commentary | To be or not to be: composting on campus

Often rated the best university in the country based on its academic excellence, McGill has the opportunity on September 29 to build its reputation for practical projects that combine global thinking with local action.

The student group Gorilla Composting was formed in 2005 in response to the lack of composting facilities or processes on campus. After working with Food Services and the Office of Sustainability, Gorilla Composting has recently proposed a system that would see food waste collected from McGill Residence kitchens delivered to a processing machine on campus, and then used as a fertilizer on campus grounds. This local solution reduces landfill space, carbon emissions from transport, and the need to purchase fertilizers, which are themselves carbon intensive. It is a win-win-win situation (unless you own a garbage hauling or fertilizer company).

Through running pilot programs, support and connections have grown with University Services, administrators, and academics. Years of work have gone into building awareness, working through the complexities of implementation, and finding funding from different levels of government. On September 29, University Services will very likely make a final yes/no decision on whether or not to compost on-campus.

Much of the capital cost of the project has been secured by Gorilla Composting with the help of SSMU, the Quebec Generations Pact, and other outside sources. The key issue is not so much the up-front capital but how to fund the additional labour required each year to keep the program running. Depending on who is contracted to do the work, the annual labour would cost between $11,000 and $40,000. With projected savings from waste disposal fees at around $4,000 per year, there will still be a certain financial burden to keep the project afloat.

Compared to many other projects, this could be an easy step toward building our reputation for sustainability. While universities such as Concordia, Yale, UBC, Harvard, and U of T have gained international recognition for their campus projects and related academic collaborations, McGill has yet to find its place. The folks at Food & Dining Services understand the “image” part of business, especially as food at McGill has had a dismal reputation for decades in external rankings like Maclean’s. Not even salmon steaks and stone-oven-baked pizzas at New Rez have been enough to offset this image, though there might be a few snooty clients there.

This isn’t just about positive reputation. The municipal and provincial governments have both mandated that institutions divert 60 per cent of their waste from landfills by 2008. Few institutions have achieved that target yet (though Mountain Equipment Co-Op is above 90 per cent), which leaves room for us to become leaders. Composting is one important step toward and beyond compliance. It also shows students, alumni, and the public that local action is possible, and the University’s initiatives would encourage others to follow suit.

Gorilla Composting is handing this project over to University Services because it is time for composting to become a regular part of university life. They have the right people to make this a resounding success. Let’s hope McGill can engage its staff and students the way other schools have – University of Ottawa, for example, has a program where staff who have money-saving ideas receive half the money saved. University Services has been very receptive and supportive of this composting project, though some of the details have yet to be worked out – in particular, the long-term labour costs. Let’s hope that on September 29, a functional composting system will be established for our campus.

David Gray-Donald is a U3 Environment and Biology student and also a coordinator for Gorilla Composting, but the views expressed here are his own. Write him at

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