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Composting at Michigan Law

Students drive MLaw sustainability efforts

By John Masson
Jan. 29, 2013

Michigan Law 3L Liz Gary has been meeting with the ideal people to carry on, after she graduates, her tireless effort to encourage Law School composting.


Not that it takes sublime martial arts skills and near invisibility to pull off a pretty darned successful composting program at Michigan Law, she said. In fact, far from it. She simply likes to refer to the dozen or so law students most dedicated to the cause as composting ninjas.

People like 1Ls Matt Evans, Joe Halso, Lucas Middleton, and Sarah Wightman, or like Gary's fellow 3L, Rachel Granneman.

"They're all incredible ninjas—the force is quite strong with them," Gary said with a smile. "Students are really ready for this to happen. We started this last year, and the baseline of understanding already is much higher than it was back then.

"It's not really that much to understand," she said. The organizers of most of Michigan Law's student events—lunchtime talks, afternoon speaker programs, and social gatherings, to name a few—began including composting in their plans. Students learned soon enough the main rule of successful composting, which basically amounts to "don't contaminate the waste stream with stuff that doesn't decompose."

Last term alone, she said, more than 50 student organizations employed composting at more than 115 events. Beyond that, special events including meetings and events of the Law School Student Senate, the Environmental Law & Policy Program, and the Campbell Moot Court program. The Nannes Challenge used it, as well.

So it's not an insubstantial program, according to the numbers Gary has compiled. Last term alone, attendees used 6,000 cups; 8,600 paper plates; 1,900 forks; 1,000 knives; 600 spoons; and 180 compostable bags.

Altogether, the Law School sent 1,560 gallons—or nearly 8 cubic yards, more than enough to fill the beds of three full-size pickups—of pure compostable materials to Tuthill Farms in nearby Livingston County. That operation, which for the past 30 years has worked mostly without herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, combines the Law School's compostables with others it collects to fertilize its crops.

Gary said strong support from Law School administrators, especially Facilities Manager Lois Harden and Director of Finance and Planning Michele Frasier Wing, helped ensure success.

"None of this would have been possible without their support," Gary said. "We've been so fortunate to have that. This program is really their victory, too."

This term, the program at the Law School will expand to include the SFF Auction and Senior Day celebrations. Faculty lunches are likely to become more composting-friendly, as well. And a new, easily accessible stockpile of compostable materials is now available in the new suite of offices for student organizations that opened after the completion of South Hall eased the Law School's space crunch.

Last year, Gary and the composting ninjas raised almost $3,500 from various university sources to purchase compostable materials and to pay to have the filled compostable bags hauled away. They volunteered to monitor disposal at student events. They even pushed the cartful of waste to the pickup location.

But the work isn't done, Gary said. The obvious next step is encouraging wider participation in similar programs across the rest of the University of Michigan. Some segments of the Ann Arbor campus already include composting in their waste management plans. The Law School's neighbor to the south, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, will use an identical program and join hands with the Law School to lower the cost of disposal to both schools. Other units, including the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and the café at the School of Public Health, promote composting and zero-waste events of their own.

It's a good start, Gary said, and she knows the program's in good hands with the composting ninjas.

"All this has happened in just one semester," Gary said. "And that's not too shabby."

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