Letter To The Editor: Recycling the Composting Narrative

Dr. Yancy Fouche 

Director of Sustainability 

President Carol Quillen and Liam Stiefel ‘20 work together to unload food waste .
Photos by Chris Record, College Communications

Thanks to The Davidsonian for ongoing coverage of important sustainability issues, on campus and in our community. This article is offered as a response to Betsy Sugar ‘21’s recent article, “Composting at Davis Café: It’s Garbage.” The article prompted an important conversation among stakeholders involved with campus compost and a weighing of the collective institutional investment vs. benefit from food waste collection originating at various campus dining locations.

Food waste is a global, systems problem. The best solutions aim to reduce waste along the production and distribution network, then at the level of individual retailers and consumers. Excess food is best redistributed for consumption by humans, or when not feasible, by animals. Finally, compost systems offer a last alternative to keep food waste out of landfills while also improving soil fertility. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Waste Hierarchy illustrates this series of approaches.

Yet, it is also important to contextualize this problem in light of the most urgent threat to humanity, climate change. Those who follow climate science, policy, and activism (and that should be each of us!) know that the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that the world has 12 years to drastically alter our greenhouse gas-related practices to avoid catastrophic increase of average global temperatures above 1.5 degrees Celsius. This unthinkable data point calls each of us to be bold, strategic, unrelenting, and collaborative in unprecedented ways.

On our campus, internal data show that our compost program does not do much to reduce our campus’ contributions to climate change. The total calculated greenhouse gas footprint for FY2018 was 26,256 mTCO2e, resulting primarily from campus electricity usage, heating and cooling systems, campus vehicles, and travel related to study abroad and professional, athletic, and academic engagements. Because our campus compost prevents additional methane emissions produced by food waste in landfills, this diverted food waste represents a carbon offset in our greenhouse gas analysis. The TOTAL compost offset for FY2018 was 5 mTCO2e or 0.02% of our total footprint. And within that total impact, post-consumer food waste from Union Café represented only 9% by weight of all waste composted on campus in Spring 2018, when the program was in full operation. By comparison, Commons food waste proportion of total weight was 51% and 18% for post-consumer (scraped from plates) and pre-consumer (scraps from cooking prep), respectively. 22% of food waste by weight derived from the Davis Café pre-consumer stream. Annual reports and details about Davidson’s climate goals and performance are available online at www.secondnature.org.

The Irwin Brawley campus compost system, established in 2009, is one of only a handful of such systems that runs successfully on college campuses. The system was originally developed with funding from The Duke Endowment but has endured over time because of continued financial investment, hard work, creative thinking, and shared commitment by many constituents across campus: namely, staff in Physical Plant, Dining Services, Campus Grounds, and the Sustainability Office. Central to its success are Assistant Director of Grounds Charles Jolly and the ten student employees who have the unglamorous task of physically handling huge trash cans full of “slop” remaining from meals eaten across campus. They conduct this highly physical work every weekday through the academic year, in rain and shine, hot and cold temperatures. Recently, Jonathan Lee ‘18, Neesha Basnyat ’18, and Liam Stiefel ’20 deserve credit for coordinating among these parties and ensuring a high-quality process.

Managing a campus compost system requires precise and coordinated planning and execution. Because the finished product is bound for our campus landscape, the operation requires state permitting and lab testing to ensure that compost application to grounds does not contribute to runoff of E. coli and other pathogens into waterways. Each location and waste stream must be managed according to its unique characteristics. Requisite steps include sorting compostable from non-compostable waste, processing food waste through a pulper to drain liquid and reduce particle size, maintaining refrigerated storage, and timing delivery for quick processing on-site.

Compost Bin

In her article, Sugar rightly pointed out that the bins in Union advertising the option to compost post-consumer food scraps are misleading. They represent repeated past efforts to capture this waste stream. These efforts have been fraught with challenges particular to the infrastructure, staff workflow, and high percentage of non-compostable waste received from Davis Café bins. Physically moving and cold-storing the high volume of daily waste from these bins is daunting. Student employees have then found that the majority of “compost” volume from this site is actually non-compostable, requiring substantive time and mess to hand-sort plastic bags full of spilled Cokes and plasticware. It seems that when diners are paying per item, they tend to eat what they buy rather than throw it away!

In light of the significant collective time and work related to Davis Café post-consumer compost stream relative to its impact as a share of campus total compost and climate efforts, we will discontinue further attempts to capture this food waste stream. I made this decision after consulting with numerous compost stakeholders. I agree with Sugar’s point that reaching this decision means we should and will replace the waste bins in Union so they no longer offer a compost option. My additional hope is that making this decision enables the many professional and student staff who have faced uncertainty and challenges around this waste stream to redirect that time to advancing sustainability in other ways that stand to offer greater impact.

Campus will continue to compost the other three large food waste streams mentioned above (Commons pre- and post-consumer, Davis Café pre-consumer waste). I am also happy to report that Patterson Court Council’s Sustainability Representatives have reinvigorated their efforts to reduce and compost food waste out of PCC dining programs. The entire compost team is working closely with representatives from Rusk and Fiji to design a process that will be piloted this semester. If successful,  expansion to other houses is an option in the future as they have interest.

On a related note, contamination of the recycling stream across campus has increased recently. This fact threatens the viability of recycling on campus for everyone. Please be very mindful to put only clean, clearly recyclable items in these bins. Plastic bottles and aluminum or steel cans should be emptied of liquids. Solo-type plastic cups are not able to be processed by our local facility; Sean Caveney ‘19 has implemented a program to collect and recycle these items “down the hill.” Plastic bags and films can NEVER be recycled in mixed-use recycling containers; these should be taken to the special plastic bag recycling area on the Post Office level of Union to the left of the doors leading to the atrium. Of course, as with food waste, reducing initial consumption of goods and using reusable bags and containers is always a good choice.

Thanks to each of you for doing all you can to support sustainability at Davidson – through your involvement in relevant programs and organizations, individual actions, academic and service experiences, dialogue, and attention and action on relevant local, state and federal policy.

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