Tuesday August 21, 2012
Students embark on project to reduce food waste
By MENG YEW CHOONG
Two students make a difference to the amount of food waste in their university campus.
THE act of composting is said to close the loop on the life-cycle of organic materials, and in this regard, the efforts of two visionary undergraduates have made a difference to the waste heaps of Universiti Malaya (UM), Kuala Lumpur.
On their own initiative, Jaron Keng and Ng Chee Guan managed to divert at least 200kg of food waste each day from the huge pile generated by students in the 309ha campus. While the amount is small compared to the total amount that still gets sent to the landfill, these two Perak boys derive a lot of satisfaction in doing their bit for the environment. “We did it mainly for fun, and it is not related to our coursework. As engineeering students, we thought long and hard about how we can contribute to our university,” said Ng.
The motivation for their endeavour is simple: they cannot accept that the bulk (45%) of the stuff that ends up in our landfills is food waste. When food decomposes under the low-oxygen conditions that are typically encountered in landfills, it produces methane, a harmful greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, as well as leachate that might contaminate groundwater.
A 2011 study commissioned by the Housing and Local Government Ministry (MHLG) found that some 1,645 tonnes of food waste is generated nationwide each day. In the end, the students, backed by a dedicated group of volunteers from their faculty, mooted the Organic Waste Diversion Project in October 2009 for the UM campus. The composting of food waste finally commenced last September. The delay was caused by the need to obtain funding, approvals, and stakeholder buy-in for the effort that involves the university’s administration and six residential halls that have central kitchens.
Keng, 25, embarked on the project after graduating with a degree in environmental engineering in 2010. He is now doing a Masters programme in public policy at UM’s Institute of Public Policy and Management. Ng, 26, is doing his PhD in environmental technology at the engineering faculty.
“Food waste is the major component and problem in municipal solid waste management in Malaysia,” said Keng. His efforts at greening his campus began during his undergraduate days in the engineering faculty, when he and Ng promulgated the idea of a waste sorting system to facilitate recycling. The system is called PRO Bin, with “P” representing paper, “R” is other recyclables and “O” is other waste. The PRO Bin is now used throughout the campus, under the supervision of an expert in solid waste management, Assoc Prof Dr Sumiani Yusoff from the university’s department of civil engineering.
In November 2010, Keng’s team sought the assistance of Dr Theng Lee Chong (then a consultant on food waste management at the Housing and Local Government Ministry). In turn, Theng introduced them to the Takakura method of composting with the help of two researchers from the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), a Japan-based research institute for sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Takakura method, pioneered by environmental engineer Koji Takakura of Japan, is a self-sustaining process once the initial batch of seed compost (one that contains the necessary microbes ready to do the job) is cultivated. The good thing about this method is that it relies on native microbes to break down waste and not some esoteric culture that has to be purchased or imported. This method of composting is feasible, given the experience of several South-East Asian cities like Surabaya and Manila, and closer home, the town of Kampar in Perak.
The Takakura method uses very little electricity, and most of it is consumed by the shredder needed to turn coarse pieces of food or yard waste into more manageable bits to speed up the breakdown process. However, the drawback of the Takakura method is that it is rather laborious – the compost heap must be stirred daily to facilitate the aerobic decomposition process.
And as the decomposition takes place under a relatively uncontrolled environment (save for shielding from rain), there is no effective way to control the external temperature, humidity, as well as the unpleasant whiffs that occasionally arise when composting meat and bones.
The Takakura method relies on aerobic decomposition, which means the biodegradation of materials by microorganisms that need oxygen (and hence, the need for constant stirring of the pile), and the end products are carbon dioxide, water, and other mineral products.
Aerobic vs anaerobic decomposition
Aerobic decomposition is generally a faster process than anaerobic decomposition, which takes place under low- or zero-oxygen conditions. Anaerobic decomposition happens in landfills as garbage is compacted, thus starving the aerobic organisms of oxygen. In such an instance, anaerobic microbes take over to break down the material but in the process, generate methane, which, if allowed to escape into the atmosphere, is harmful.
The fundraising, approval and stakeholder buy-in process proved to be more difficult than the technical challenges of the programme. Several roundtable discussions, meetings and discussions were carried out in the first half of 2010 to garner support from the residential colleges and the university administration. UM agreed to hire a full-time worker to take care of all the nitty-gritty such as weighing and sorting the food waste, as well as turning the compost piles.
Applications to various parties for funding assistance were unsuccessful until CIMB Foundation agreed to sponsor RM114,000 – with RM60,000 allocated for the food waste project and the rest for the PRO Bins. IGES and the MHLG-Ministry of Environment Japan Collaboration Project remain as advisors of the project.
The fruit of all the hard work and tedious consultation is a programme called the Green Bag Scheme. The trash bags are not really green in colour, but these elongated plastic bags are now present in six residential halls that are participating in the project. Kitchen helpers will place all kitchen waste like vegetable scraps, fruit peel, chicken innards, and unfinished food into the bags, which are then sent to the secondary waste sorting area.
The scheme has been generally well-received, and the amount of food waste collected far exceeds the ability of the students to compost them. The waste needs 15 days to break down, and another 15 days to mature under storage before the compost can be used. So far, the project is capable of handling 200kg of waste each day out of the 600kg that is collected daily. The unprocessed portion still goes to the landfill.
Many valuable lessons were learned in the course of the project. For one, doing composting is not as easy as one thinks. The pile needs constant turning to achieve the proper temperature and aeration, and this is rather labour-intensive. Takakura composting is also not free of vermin problems, especially when a high percentage of meat waste is encountered. To be sure, fully-automated composting machines can overcome the problems of space constrain, labour, smell and pests, but they come at a high price – a 250kg-per-day composter costs about RM90,000.
The most shocking reality for Keng’s team is not being able to find a market for the compost. They initially assumed that their product can fetch close to RM2 per kg, or RM2,000 per tonne. In reality, they were only offered 30 sen per kg, which is believed to be the market price for chicken dung. If not for subsidies in the form of land, water, electricity and labour from UM, and funding from CIMB Foundation, the project would not have taken off. And even with all the support, it is still far from being commercially viable.
“Basically, there is no commercial market for the compost we made, so we are now utilising it within our campus ground as fertiliser for all the plants. We are also attempting to cultivate some vegetables on-site,” said Keng, who remains committed to partially resolving some of Malaysia’s most pressing problems with solid waste. Other than running his own waste management consultancy, he is also the secretary of a fairly new conservation group called The Green and Blue Group.
He remains a believer in the environmental benefits of on-site composting, and is proud of his role in helping UM do something significant about its mountain of waste.
“We have improved the management of food waste, in the context of cleanliness, storage, transfer, transport and treatment, as well as developed some best practices on source segregation, transfer and composting,” said Keng. He has now moved towards experimenting with anaerobic digestion of food waste to produce liquid fertiliser and methane gas that will be captured for either flaring or combustion in a gas engine for electricity generation.
Guide to Takakura composting:
For more on Koji Takakura: eco-csrjapan.go. jp/en/jpec.html.