You Got Oatmeal on My Hyacinth

Recall, if you will, those old commercials in which someone with a jar of peanut butter crashes into someone with a chocolate bar—serendipity that results in the perfect combination. Something similar happened recently at Texas State University when two separate ideas unexpectedly collided, leading to something even better than a peanut butter cup—a better environment.

Associate professor of horticulture Tina Cade and graduate student John Montoya were busy working on a project to eradicate the pesky water hyacinth. “The plant is very pretty,” says Cade, “but it’s a worldwide invasive species, choking off waterways and messing up ecosystems.”

The hyacinths were being pulled from the San Marcos River and left stacked on the riverbank for collection. But because the plants are 98 percent water and nitrogen-rich, and since both water and nitrogen are vital to decomposition, Montoya had the idea to compost them instead of simply tossing them in the trash.

Meanwhile, Professor Cade was also working with graduate student Jason Sanders, who was putting together a compost project to manage organic waste from the school’s cafeteria. When Cade and Montoya received a grant for the hyacinth effort, things fell into place for both projects. Soon, a hyacinth-composting site was erected on campus which, in turn, gave Sanders the perfect locale for the cafeteria compost project. Sanders wrote, and received, an additional grant to cover needed equipment, compost bins and the extra funding to implement his program. And to garner enthusiasm and inspire students to sort their compost-friendly leftovers—referred to, with a nod to the university’s mascot, as “Bobcat Blend”—from trash, Sanders turned his efforts into a game. He and other students dress as referees and call out students who don’t sort properly, and reward those who do.

So far, tons of organic waste from the cafeteria have been mixed with the eight tons of hyacinths Montoya has collected. Sanders and Montoya are pleased with the progress, but aren’t yet ready to rest on their composted laurels. “Our goal is to make this program sustainable and eventually have it in all five of our dining halls,” says Sanders. “It’s my goal in life not only to offset my own carbon footprint, but to offset the carbon footprints of others,” says Montoya. “I’d like to leave this earth knowing that I gave to it more than I took from it.”

“We’re bringing to students the idea of composting,” says Cade. “Hopefully it will develop into a habit they will take with them into life.”

To find out more about TSU’s hyacinth eradication program, or the cafeteria waste composting program, visit: txstate.edu (keywords: Bobcat Blend and compost system).