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Holly Moriarty working in a residence hall kitchen.


With dedication—and more than a few meetings—an engineering student makes the case for composting food waste.

Holly Moriarty took what she learned from the classroom to the cafeteria, and wound up with a mountain of compost.

Moriarty and three other students came up with the idea of composting pre-consumer food, such as scraps from food preparation, at Hillcrest Market Place for a class assignment. The Peosta, Iowa, native, who’d worked at the dining hall her sophomore year, succeeded in turning the paper into reality in spring 2007, with a yearlong pilot that ended that December.

“It was kind of hard because at a big university you have to go through a lot of different steps, a lot of different people, to do something like this,” says Moriarty, who’ll graduate in May with a bachelors degree in civil and environmental engineering with an emphasis on engineering for a sustainable world.

The Hillcrest food waste was combined with yard waste collected by the City of Iowa City to create 50 tons of compost—decomposed organic matter that’s used by gardeners and landscapers to improve soil quality and prevent erosion.

While other students were preoccupied with final exams, Moriarty was holding meetings with University and city officials at the end of the fall 2006 semester. She and her classmates did such a thorough job on their paper that the officials easily saw the benefits of the project, says Jennifer Jordan, Iowa City’s recycling coordinator.

“Holly’s definitely a go-getter; she’s definitely the impetus behind the project,” she says. “It wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been the lynchpin.”

The effects of Moriarty’s initiative will be felt long after she’s collected her diploma. The University saves $20 for every ton of food waste it diverts from the landfill to the compost pile and it saves on water, since not as much food has to be flushed down the garbage disposal. Iowa City, which had not composted food before, is building on its experience with the project to expand its composting capacity and will be accepting more food waste from the University and other area businesses and institutions in the fall.

Moriarty will enter the job market with a wealth of practical experience under her belt. In addition to this project, for which she won the Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations’ Innovative Waste Management Project Award last year, she has also built water purification systems in Mexico through Engineers for a Sustainable World, a global network of 3,000 engineers with a strong chapter on the UI campus.

Moriarty has come a long way from job-shadowing the Dubuque County engineer in high school. She’s now considering a job offer from an environmental consulting firm in the Chicago area that she interned for last summer. She’d be the only sustainability engineer in a company that deals with environmental issues such as getting chemical spills out of the water system.

When she first set foot on campus, Moriarty didn’t even know if engineering was right for her. But now, after five years of classes and tons of compost later, she’s prepared to leave her mark on the world, and to make it a better place.

“People are going to come up with reasons not to have something like the composting project done,” she says. “You just have to take the reasons, the problems, and make solutions any way you can.”

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

Feb. 25, 2008


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