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University of Missouri

Greener Garbage

Professors explore the financial and environmental costs of campus food waste.

Mizzou food waste study

Industrial engineering students Nicholas Boshonek, left, and Trevion McGhaw sort through food discarded from Mizzou dining halls for a study about food waste. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Nationwide, up to 40 percent of America’s food goes to waste. Columbia is no exception. Figuring out what should be done with what’s left over is Christine Costello and Ronald McGarvey’s task.

Funded by a grant from the Mizzou Alumni Association, the pair has sent undergraduate students to collect and sort food waste from Mizzou’s dining halls. During fall 2014, with $82,000 in Mizzou Advantage funding, they’ll gather garbage from University Hospital and Intercollegiate Athletics. The researchers hope to determine the composition of the food waste (how much is grain, meat, fruit, etc.) and calculate the cost of disposal, including how much greenhouse gas the waste would create under various disposal options: landfills, landfills that capture or burn biogas (mostly methane), incineration, composting, and gasification to create biofuel. They also want to measure how much greenhouse gas was released and fertilizer used to produce the wasted food.

Costello is an assistant research professor in bioengineering in the College of Engineering. McGarvey is an assistant professor in the college’s industrial and manufacturing engineering systems department and in the Truman School of Public Affairs.

Their plan is to present campus and community leaders with a breakdown of how much each alternative costs in dollars and in pounds of carbon emissions.

Landfills are the current disposal method of choice. “If you don’t consider [side effects], that might be the cheapest option,” McGarvey says. But would decision-makers be willing to pay anything extra to lower carbon emissions? If so, how much? The duo hopes to show whether disposal alternatives can cut emissions at an acceptable price.