Midtown Raleigh News

Pizza goes green at NCSU as university starts composting its pie boxes

Dylan Bauknecht takes a pizza order at Gumby's Pizza and Wings.
Dylan Bauknecht takes a pizza order at Gumby's Pizza and Wings. tlong@newsobserver.com

For the eco-friendly eater, the pizza box remains the most stubborn piece of trash – soaked in oil, gooey with burned cheese and impossible to recycle.

On a college campus, the piles of discarded pie containers can stack up eyeball-high and pour out of dorm trash bins, flecked with pepperoni.

So a new composting program at N.C. State University aims to spare the landfill all that greasy cardboard. Starting next week, students will see a new pair of bins with a special pizza logo.

“Not just pizza boxes,” said Lauren McKinnis, outreach coordinator for N.C. Waste Reduction and Recycling. “Pizza can go in there. Napkins can go in there. Pieces of crust can go in there.”

So from now on, when a freshman suite orders six Aloha Chicken pizzas from Gumby’s, whatever they leave behind will get shipped to Goldston and turned into soil.

It’s the latest source of campus pride.

“You can tell your grandchildren, ‘I was there when we saved the environment,’ ” English professor Dick Reavis told his class this week.

It’s a rare move for a college campus. Both Miami (Ohio) University and the University of Cincinnati have started pilot pie-box composting programs, but as far as NCSU can tell, no other big school is trying it on a permanent basis.

To begin, just two bins will be set up – one at Bragaw Residence Hall and one at Bowen/Metcalf Hall – but the project could grow.

NCSU has the goal of diverting 65 percent of campus waste away from landfills by next year, and student focus groups pushed for more.

“The question that kept coming up was, ‘Why aren’t we composting?’ ” McKinnis said.

The American college student consumes pizza as a primary food group. More than a quarter of males between the ages of 12 and 19 will eat it every day, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

Consider that NCSU’s housing department bought 2,588 boxes just for its programs in the 2012-13 year, and that doesn’t count the endless pizza containers students order on their own.

“I personally don’t eat a lot of pizza,” said Hannah Frank, a freshman studying nutrition and agroecology, “but we order a lot of them in my suite because the Papa John’s is right down the street. We have to stop using our room trash cans and use the trash cans in the bathroom.”

As she spoke, manning the Farmer’s Market Club table on the N.C. State Brickyard, a stranger walked up with a half-full box and asked, “Free pizza?”

Frank declined, but the student standing next to her said, “I’ll take one.”

Compost and topsoil

Food waste already goes to Brooks Contractor in Goldston, and the boxes will just get mixed in with that.

Once at Goldston, the soggy cardboard gets made into compost and topsoil that gets sold to landscapers and organic farmers. In 2012, Brooks composted 12,000 tons of commercial food waste.

“The pizza box will definitely live again,” owner Amy Brooks said.

University Housing estimates the box program will cost between $5,000 and $7,000 this year, but it’s hard to predict.

The city of Raleigh, though, calls pizza-box composting an interesting but expensive proposition.

Raleigh has no composting facility, and it would take roughly $10 million to properly convert its yard-waste center, said Linda Leighton, waste reduction specialist. Factor in new composting bins and the price tag rises.

So for now, Raleigh’s only green pizza will be served on its biggest college campus, where it is likely appreciated with the greatest gusto.