The State of Composting at Penn

compost pictogram
August 26, 2015

The composting industry in our region is going through significant changes that are having an impact on Penn’s solid waste management processes. Foremost is the closure of the Wilmington Organics Recycling Center (WORC) last fall, which is affecting the PA, NY, NJ, DE, and MD areas. WORC was the region’s largest industrial composting facility and had been our primary processor for recycling food waste and other organics since Penn became one of their first customers in late 2009.

Fortunately, we have been able to find alternative composting facilities for the food waste that Penn collects at a number of locations across campus, and the collection systems in place at in campus dining cafes is not affected by this change.

However, while the University was previously able to compost organic materials, including compostable plates, utensils, and other bio-plastics, this is no longer the case, as the remaining vendors lack the industrial equipment that WORC had to handle such materials. There are several plans underway by private businesses to develop new full-service, industrial composting facilities in the next couple of years, but even after these new composting sites are up and running, bio-plastics will likely remain a challenge for recyclers for the foreseeable future.  Their use should be avoided.

What this means for the University is that we now have to modify how we operate events at which we compost organics. In particular, during catered events, in order to divert the greatest amount from landfill, we must now recommend going to a three-stream system:  a compostable bin for food only;  a recycling bin for plastics, bottles, and cans;  and a landfill bin for soiled papers, plates, and utensils. Only food should be going into bins labeled “compost.”

While these protocols may change how Penn diverts organics from landfills, we are proud to report that we currently divert over 10 tons of food waste per month from student dining halls, cafes and coffee shops, retail restaurants, and special events. This average monthly sum has more than doubled in the past year, due to increased participation in organics recycling programs across campus.  Despite the complications caused by WORC’s closing, we are confident that this pace of food diversion can and will continue to grow.

The Penn Sustainability Office will be providing additional updates on the state of composting and other solid waste management initiatives in the coming months, as well as how to host low-impact catered events on campus.

For any additional questions, don’t hesitate to write us at