Composting at Davis Cafe: It’s Garbage!

Betsy Sugar ‘21

Staff Writer

Illustration by Richard Farrell ‘22

When throwing away waste after a meal in Union, students encounter three bins: trash, compost, and recycling. While students may believe that they have the opportunity to choose to make an environmental impact, all materials from the Union bins (including compost) are transmitted to a landfill, and nothing to the industrial composter on campus, as explained by students from the sustainability office. 

Aislinn Whalen ‘22, the student data collector for the Sustainability Office, explained that there are two distinct types of compost on campus: pre-consumer and post-consumer. Pre-consumer compost is the food in Union and Commons that is prepared but not eaten or served at either dining space. Post-consumer compost is the napkins and leftover food that students have not eaten and that is left on trays and plates. 

All pre-consumer compost at Davidson is collected and sent to the industrial composter at Physical Plant. Commons also sends all of the post-consumer compost left on the trays to the Physical Plant facility, meaning that ideally, little to no waste is generated by Commons. The Davis Cafe in Union, on the other hand, no longer sends the post-consumer compost, because it takes too long to sort, according to Whalen, who has served as an intermediary  between the Sustainability Office and Union. Despite the signs clearly indicating what can and cannot be composted in Union, students have continued to throw single-use plastics and other non-organic items into the compost bins. 

Whalen explained that the Davis Cafe used to send post-consumer compost to the industrial composter, but it has become too much work for the Davis Cafe staff to sort through the compost bin and pick out the trash. The Cafe hopes to be able to send post-consumer compost once again, but will not be able to do so until students consciously sort their waste between the bin options. In the meantime, the confusing signs about sorting compost still hang in Union, leading students to believe they actually have a choice when throwing away waste.

When done right, composting can have a positive environmental impact.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Organic waste in landfills generates, methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By composting wasted food and other organics, methane emissions are significantly reduced.” Composting is one way in which students can easily reduce waste, and by extension greenhouse gas emissions. 

Liam Stiefel ‘20, the student coordinator for the Sustainability Office, explained more of the details of composting on campus, and the Sustainability Office’s efforts to make it accessible and easy across campus. According to Stiefel, thanks to Davidson’s industrial composter, students can compost any organic matter, including cooked food and meat. The compost generated on campus is then used for grounds by Physical Plant in the landscaping. In 2017, Davidson generated 20,450 pounds of compost, and saw no food waste from Commons.

Both the community garden and the Farm at Davidson also use compost to fertilize their grounds, but because the industrial composter processes meat it cannot be used in soil for growing food. The Sustainability Office does not work directly with either the farm or the garden on composting due to this restriction. For growing vegetables, the garden and the farm need to use compost from raw organic matter, which excludes all cooked food.

According to Stiefel, the Sustainability Office also does not work directly with Patterson Court Council (PCC), but would like to begin picking up food from eating houses and fraternities on Patterson Court for the industrial composter. They hope to reduce waste across all of campus, not just in the college’s dining facilities.

Stiefel also wants to see more initiatives across campus to continue cutting down on all waste on campus, not just food waste. He hopes mores students will bring sustainable practices “into our consciousness of our day-to-day [routines].” 

Currently, according to Whalen and Stiefel, the Sustainability Office wants more push from the general student body. In addition, student engagement can bring about positive change, such as encouraging the Union to compost post-consumer waste again by sorting trash after meals, so that the Union staff does not have to sort the bins. Whalen expressed similar sentiments, reminding the campus, “The Sustainability Office is always open and people are welcome to come and ask questions of how to get involved.”

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