By: Kate Muntzner ’24 (she/her), Staff Writer

Photo illustration for “COVID-19, Composting, and Crown Town: Exploring New Composting Methods at Davidson in Response to the Pandemic”

After a brief hiatus, composting has returned to Davidson. 

Davidson has resumed composting at Vail Commons for the upcoming semester and expanded composting to Warner Hall House in an effort to increase sustainability on campus and reduce food waste.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Davidson had a student-run closed-loop system, meaning that the college composted its own food and recycled the waste back into campus grounds. However, the anaerobic digester, the machine that students used to compost, had ongoing issues with adjusting for different types of food waste and breakdowns. 

Yancey Fouché, Davidson College Director of Sustainability, explained that the college did not compost during the fall semester for two reasons: first, COVID-19 operational concerns. Second, Vail Commons’ providing food to eating houses meant that there was additional volume of groceries that limited storage space and thereby the campus’s ability to compost. Fouché continued that state law requires institutions to chill food waste to a certain degree before composting, and the extra food and food waste limited the storage space in freezers necessary to reach the required temperature. 

Fouché added that the pandemic became a catalyst for long-term change in composting methods at Davidson. In order to accommodate the extra food going to Patterson Court, Davidson signed a contract with Crown Town Compost, a composting company based in Charlotte. Co-founded by Kris Steele, David Valder, and Davidson alumnus Marcus Carson ‘13, Crown Town uses windrow composting, which involves piling up food and turning it with large equipment to generate heat without special equipment. 

Carson developed an interest in sustainability at Davidson, where he was an Environmental Studies major and Sustainability Fellow. After graduating, he became the Sustainability Manager for Mecklenburg County, during which he attended an event in Charlotte where he met Steele and Valder. The event was geared towards the use of design-thinking principles to tackle sustainability issues. After working with Steele and Valder to start Crown Town, Carson became the Assistant Director for Sustainability & Quality Control for Duke Dining, where he is now.

Fouché explained that the college chose Crown Town for three reasons: pricing, flexibility, and the company’s relationship with the town of Davidson. The company allows for flexibility in timing and in the types of food the system can process. Unlike other composting companies or the composting process at Davidson prior to the pandemic, Crown Town doesn’t require food to be refrigerated prior to composting and is able to process proteins. This allows the college more flexibility in preparing the food waste, Fouchésaid. Other businesses in Davidson also already use Crown Town, meaning that Davidson College is participating in a larger effort by the town to promote sustainability. According to Fouché, Crown Town reduces the college’s carbon footprint because the company already makes trips into Davidson.

Crown Town has a contract with Commons specifically, though there is a trial run with Warner Hall as an extension of the Commons’ composting plan to explore the possibility of composting in all of the Patterson Court eating houses. Students from Warner Hall simply bring their food waste to the back of Commons, where Crown Town picks it up. 

Warner Sustainability Chair Caroline Wack ‘23 said, “With the help of Lucy Dixon and Olivia Ng (Sustainability Office employees) we have been working together to try to pilot a composting program at Warner, with the hopes of expanding it to all PCC orgs on campus soon.”

According to Fouché, the Davis Café has significantly less storage space because of its smaller kitchen, thereby making it more difficult to compost. However, the pay-per-item nature of the Davis Café means that students often waste less food. 

Olivia Ng ‘21, who works in the Davidson Sustainability Office, said that there used to be paper composting in the Union, but students weren’t sorting it properly. As a result, other students had to sort through the trash by hand. Ultimately, because the food waste at Union is miniscule, Ng explained, “In the big picture, although it might make Davidson seem like we’re doing more sustainability, in terms of allocating our resources, it wasn’t the best use of our time.”

Composting at Davidson is part of broader sustainability and social justice efforts. Carson explained that food waste, when not properly disposed of, produces methane as it rots. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so there are major climate change implications. Carson added that landfills are typically located in marginalized communities, resulting in disproportionate negative health impacts.

While composting is important to reducing waste and mitigating climate change, Ng stated, “Composting is not the solution.” Rather, she said, “Composting is to remediate the problem and make it less worse, but the main thing we need to be doing is to be reducing the amount of food that we waste.”

Fouché elaborated by saying, “[The dining staff is] eager to support compost and sustainability in general, but they also want to be service oriented and provide the food that students want. A key thing is to be sure that students who care about this topic model responsibility by only taking what they want in the Commons.” She continued, “When students fill their plates with food they don’t eat, that’s the biggest source of our food waste on campus right there. There is only so much the institution itself can do to solve that problem.”

Carson is hopeful that composting can serve as a good start, especially on college campuses. 

“Broadly speaking, college campuses are kind of interesting and powerful laboratories, both social laboratories and operational laboratories, for tackling big climate change issues,” he said. “Divestment in high-carbon businesses really began on college campuses because college students have the passion and energy, and they understand the impact of sustainability issues.”

COVID-19 may have slowed sustainability efforts across the country, but Carson offered an optimistic note of conclusion. 

“Operationally, it’s slowed down, but the passions of students have not. If anything, they’re more hungry to think of ways to address sustainability right now,” he said.