Texas State home to award-winning composting program

Photo by: 

Kevin Walsh, graduate student, and Erich Scholl, geography senior, shovel recycled food from dining halls Sept. 6 for the Bobcat Blend program.

The odor of rotting food and dead plants can be smelled from a hilltop outside of San Marcos. However, for students at Texas State’s sustainable composting project, the stench is a byproduct of their work.

Bobcat Blend creates compost, a soil product often comprised of food waste and dead plant matter, said Jen Sembera, graduate student researcher and Bobcat Blend employee. The mixture is placed into a long pile called a windrow and, after an extended period of time, the blend decomposes into a fine, uniform soil used for landscaping and agricultural purposes, Sembera said.

The operation, which is entirely student-run and faculty managed, focuses on researching alternative, renewable resources and educating people in agricultural sustainability and waste management, according to a presentation given by Sembera on the program.

“It’s creating something from nothing,” Sembera said. “With this project, we are able to take something useless and repurpose it into a viable resource again.”

In 2011, Bobcat Blend processed 57 tons of food waste at their composting site a few miles southeast of San Marcos. Just one year later, the program was able to process 80.4 tons of food waste, all with the help of seven employees, the presentation said. Sembera said before the program’s inception in 2009, the on-campus dining halls were throwing out about 300 thousand pounds of food waste every year.

Members of the agriculture department saw an opportunity for research, and went to the Environmental Protection Agency seeking a grant. Sembera said the department was able to set up a composting site with the money and pay employees to scour dining halls every night to collect uneaten food waste.

Sembera said Bobcat Blend has begun selling the compost to local community gardens and is working with a graduate business class to develop a business model.

“We are more of a small business now,” Sembera said. “Until the business picks up, we are always searching for more funding.”

Sembera said the plants that make up the second component of the compost mixture are collected from a variety of locations such as rivers and oceans. Sembera’s research focuses primarily on the use of the taro plant, also known as elephant ears, an invasive plant species found in the San Marcos River.

“Usually when the plant is removed, it is thrown into a landfill and never used again,” Sembera said. “With Bobcat Blend, we are able to divert it from the landfills and use it for composting.”

According to a TCEQ release, the research conducted with Bobcat Blend has already proved the efficiency of the water hyacinth, another invasive species found in Texas, to be used as a component in composting. Further efforts to look into the viability of using other plant sources such as seaweed for their compost, an option which Sembera said has never been academically studied.

Bobcat Blend’s research efforts have acted as a vehicle into public education in topics of waste management and agricultural sustainability, Sembera said. The program has partnered with grade schools to inform students about pre- and post-consumer waste.

In May, Bobcat Blend was awarded the Texas Environmental Excellence Award in education from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, one of ten awards given each year.

TCEQ spokeswoman Lisa Wheeler said the strides Bobcat Blend has gone through to contribute to environmental staying power has earned them the award.

“This is a one-of-a-kind program that is powered by the will of students and faculty alone,” Wheeler said. “The recipient was a no-brainer.”

Geography senior Erich Scholl has been with Bobcat Blend for nearly two years. Scholl said he started out as a food waste collector but now works at the composting site, getting dirty and shoveling food waste and plants into piles.
“I like being outside,” Scholl said. “But I’m also learning a lot in my field of study and getting to network with people, which may lead to a job.”

Sembera said the innovative ideas and research at Bobcat Blend come in a time of environmental revolution where conservation efforts are increasingly becoming a normalcy.

“Composting is the future,” Sembera said. “It’s not so much a movement anymore, it’s a lifestyle.”