A photo of the windrow composting process.


Food Waste Collection (Trial Run)

As of August 2022, UW-Madison relaunched a food waste collection program on a trial-run basis. After receiving tremendous support from the campus community, 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. Below are more details describing each groups role and responsibilities.

Participating Facilities (Wisconsin Union & University Housing)

Gordon 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 its quality of food scraps. Like many food waste collection programs, contamination remains an ongoing concern. Typically, this program targets “back-of-house” food scraps and left-over food from catering events.  This new trial-run program only allows facilities with trained employees to properly discard only food scraps into the collection carts.

Hauler (FP&M Physical Plant Waste & Recycling)

The 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)

Credit: College of Agricultural & Life Sciences

WMARS intends to process the food waste using a windrow composting process to create finished compost (as shown in the photo). This facility does not have screening technology. Processing only acceptable items remains an important operational concern. 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

Prior to sending items to an anaerobic digestor, 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. A summary timeline of food waste collection at UW-Madison is shown below.

Program History

Composting Trial

Food Waste Survey Results

Digester Facility (Former Processor)

What about food waste from home?

The UW–Madison does not accept additional food waste brought from off-campus residences.

For food scraps and other organic materials generated off-campus, please consider the following options:

  1. Reduce the volume of surplus food generated.EPA - Food Waste Hierarchy
  2. Donate extra food to recovery programs, food banks, and food pantries.
  3. Utilize an in-sink garbage disposal if you live within the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) service area. The Wastewater/Resource Recovery Treatment plant at Nine Springs recovers energy and collects the biosolids for fertilizer (Metrogro). REMINDER: Never put fats, oil, or grease down your drains. Check the product specifications of your disposal to determine what food waste is appropriate.
  4. Drop off your food scraps at one of three collection points run by the City of Madison. You can learn more here.
  5. Set up your own compost system. Decide if a backyard or vermicomposting system fits best with your available space and volume of food scraps. The UW–Division of Extension Master Composter Program offers resources and support.
  6. Compost your food scraps at a community garden. Find a garden near you. Ask the garden coordinator if you could bring your food scraps to the compost pile and/or help maintain the compost pile.
  7. Work with a private food waste collection service. Local options include Curbside Composter, Earth Stew Compost Services, and Green Box Compost. Don’t have a private organics collection hauler? Contact your municipality or your landlord to inquire.

For more information, check out the EPA’s Sustainable Management of Food website!