The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recognized the University of Arizona for its food diversion efforts, giving particular recognition to the student-formed Compost Cats, a nationally unique organization.
The UA was among 11 institutions, organizations and companies recognized as the federal agency's 2015 Food Recovery Challenge regional award winners. Others include the Rochester Institute of Technology, Disneyland Resort and Nestlé USA.
The EPA provided Compost Cats with a Certificate of Appreciation, recognizing a "demonstrated commitment to improving sustainable food management practices."
"We're proud of the recognition the EPA has given our Compost Cats, and of all the engaged students committed to sustainability in our community who continue to make it a success," said Ben Champion, director of the UA Office of Sustainability.
"As more and more universities and waste operations look to scale up their food waste recovery efforts, we look forward to the UA sharing the Compost Cats partnership model and expertise with our peers to accelerate efforts across the country to address food waste and soil fertility," Champion said.
In 2015, the Associated Students of the University of Arizona's Compost Cats, though a partnership with the city of Tucson and the Tohono O'odham Nation's San Xavier Co-op Farm, diverted from landfills more than 3.4 million pounds of organic materials, said Chet F. Phillips, ASUA's sustainability program coordinator and project director for Compost Cats.
"That's the equivalent of avoiding about 11,148 gallons of gasoline, in terms of carbon emissions," Phillips said.
The student-led organization originally formed by collecting organic waste — food waste, landscape debris and manure — in the Tucson community. Now in its fifth year, it has since diverted more than 10 million pounds, Phillips said.
"What is notable is the rate of growth we've been experiencing," Phillips said, noting that the organization has diverted about two-thirds of that waste in the last two years alone.
Last year, Compost Cats signed an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Tucson, which provided financial stability while also expanding the organization's reach.
The organization now works through Tucson's commercial collection service with dozens of businesses and grocery stores, collecting organic waste and handling the composting.
Phillips said the number served continues to grow, with an additional group of grocery stores and schools set to come onboard.
"Grocery stores in Tucson produce an average of about 15,000 pounds of food waste per month, but now most of that won’t be waste at all," Phillips said. "Instead, it gets transformed into a valuable soil amendment that can enrich local food-growing soils to help grow more food."
By the end of last year, the city of Tucson brought 1.35 million pounds of food waste to the operation site at San Xavier, an "impressive feat" that Compost Cats could not have accomplished solo, Phillips said.
"The ASUA Compost Cats continues to demonstrate that it is possible for students to play leading roles in solving thorny environmental and social problems and uniting seemingly disparate groups toward common goals," Phillips said.
Also, some of the compost is sold to the general public at the San Xavier Co-op Farm.
"The success of the Compost Cats/city of Tucson/San Xavier Co-op Farm program is rooted in the meaningful partnerships nurtured between all three partners and the wider community we serve," Phillips said.
Chet F. Phillips, Emily Soderberg and La Monica Everett-Haynes contributed to this article.