Composting coming to a University site near you


If composting is the next frontier in Pitt’s sustainability plan, Ernest Robinson is a pioneer in his own University building, with plans to expand composting to new campus facilities in the coming months.

As senior manager of custodial services, Robinson has outfitted the Eureka Building, which houses his Facilities Management office, with everything needed to reduce the amount of material Pitt employees and students send to landfills. Every Eureka floor has composting containers in its kitchens and bathrooms as well as adjacent to other prime locations for compostable materials: close to vending machines and coffee makers. In the bathrooms, for instance, the built-in receptacles below the paper towel dispensers are now exclusively compost bins.

Each compost collection spot carries a sign detailing what stuff is eligible: food scraps of every variety; used tissues, paper towels and napkins; pizza boxes too greasy for recycling; tea bags, coffee grounds, coffee filters and compostable coffee pods; and compostable dinnerware, cups and utensils.

In the parking lot behind the Eureka Building sits a yellow container — a plastic Dumpster-like bin about 6 feet long and 4 feet high — to which custodial staff haul compostable materials in bags that decompose freely too. Once a week, local company AgRecycle arrives to haul the materials to its composting facility.

Robinson believes compliance with the new composting effort has been very high — up to 90 percent, based on his own inspections of the building’s bins. In May, Eureka’s second month of composting, the building generated 1.9 tons of compostable waste that went to AgRecycle, he said.

Pitt’s 2018 sustainability plan calls for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2025 through composting. But up to now, Pitt has had only “little pockets” of composting efforts, Robinson said, including certain public events. 

Now, Robinson and his staff plan to expand composting to new Pitt buildings: the William Pitt Union by the end of August, followed by the Swanson School of Engineering’s Benedum Hall, Posvar Hall and Forbes Tower (home to the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences).

Robinson recently studied composting feasibility for all the Union floors, and is speaking to Sodexo, which runs the University’s dining facilities, about how to include the food vendors on the Union’s ground floor. Among the many factors he must consider is the simple one of space for a new bin and room for AgRecycle’s trucks to pull in.

“We wanted to identify places where we feel we had good dock space,” Robinson says. “Years ago, when these buildings were made, they weren’t made with composting in mind.”

He plans to educate staff, faculty and students — with the help of PittServes, the student volunteering hub — about the value of composting, but right now he’s counting on what he sees in his own building: The practice has advocates who are passionate about composting’s benefits and who remind their peers to participate.

Those hoping to get started earlier on composting cannot simply haul their own compostables to the Eureka’s outside bin; it is locked to prevent passersby from tossing non-compostable trash in with the good stuff. “AgRecycle doesn't want to take a contaminated load,” Robinson says.

“We want to … reduce waste that goes to the landfill, because that costs us more money,” Robinson adds. Fewer trash-hauling trips also reduces carbon emissions.

“My goal is that, when trash is pulled from the Eureka Building, I should have more pulls from composting than I should have from waste, if we’re doing it right.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.