Composting trial restarts at UW–Madison

As of August 2022, UW–Madison has relaunched a food waste collection program on a trial-run basis. After receiving tremendous support from the campus community following the cessation of the previous composting program, the UW Zero Waste team convened members from participating facilities, haulers, and a processor in order to find a solution to the composting conundrum. To date, all groups have agreed to a trial-run program where only a clean stream of food scraps will be collected by participating facilities and converted into compost. The groups have set up a robust data collection structure, which will allow reporting out an annual basis following the first year of operation.

Below, you can read more details describing each group’s role and responsibilities.

Participating Facilities (Wisconsin Union & University Housing)

Four campus buildings at different times of day and nightGordon Dining & Event Center, Dejope Residence Hall, Union South, and Memorial Union started collecting food scraps separately. These four locations generate over 50% of campus’ food waste. These facilities were selected due to the large quantity of food waste, supportive staff, and for the quality of food scraps. Like many food waste collection programs, contamination remains a primary concern. This new trial-run program only allows facilities with trained employees to properly discard food scraps into the collection carts, and generally targets “back of house” food scraps and leftover food from catering events.

Hauler (FP&M Physical Plant Waste & Recycling)

A white garbage truck parked on a street on campus with bare trees behind itThe FP&M Physical Plant Waste & Recycling team collects the food waste from participating facilities. Currently, this team inspects each load of food scraps provided by the participating facility. If a load is contaminated with non-food items such as plastic bags, bottles, wax paper, etc., the load will be rejected and material will be hauled to the landfill. If the participating facility continually has contaminated loads, the facility will be removed from the program. To date, only one load has been contaminated. After discovering this one load, corrective actions were put in place to remedy the operational disposal mistake. After the loads are inspected and collected, the team hauls the food waste to the West Madison Agricultural Research Station (WMARS).

Outlet / Processor (West Madison Agricultural Research Station)

A red tractor pulling a green attachment that is turning over compost material in a long windrow pile next to a corn field
Credit: College of Agricultural & Life Sciences

WMARS intends to process the food waste using a windrow composting process to create finished compost (see photo at right). This facility does not have screening technology, so processing only acceptable items remains an important operational priority. WMARS’s superintendent Janet Hedtcke stated “the project is going excellent so far.” Because of the supervision, restriction of material brought in, and micro-batches, the station has seen an improvement from the previous program. Hedtcke is in favor of this procedural process to ensure that the material stream remains clean. Still, the trial period is only in its beginning stages. The windrow for the food waste is still being stockpiled and constructed. Once the field is ready, WMARS will begin the composting process. It will take a year of monitoring and collecting data to officially state if the project was successful. A long-term outlet/processor is still under consideration.

Historical Context

Between 2009-2018, WMARS collected food scraps produced on the main campus. WMARS stopped collecting the university’s food waste because of its high contamination rate. Some examples of contamination included paper/wrappers that blew across the field, industrially compostable products that never broke down, and even metal cutlery that punctured tractor tires. Campus then began contracting with an anaerobic digester facility that had sorting equipment; this arrangement lasted until the facility changed in hands in summer 2021. A summary timeline of food waste collection at UW-Madison is shown below.


For more information, contact the Zero Waste Team at

By: Travis Blomberg, Campus Resource Coordinator & Emily Johnson, Zero Waste Project Assistant