Every day, the College’s dining halls produce 2,500 pounds of waste. 80 percent of everything the dining halls throw away does not really have to be taken to a landfill: a ton of food waste and dirty napkins a day can be composted into fertile soil. Thanks to the work of a few dedicated campus environmentalists and a helpful Dining Services, 600 pounds – 30 percent of compostable waste – is already saved from landfills and recycled as compost. Katherine Birnie ’00, Tanu Kumar ’01 and Ben Werner ’01 are leading the charge for the Purple Druids to save all of the College’s organic waste from already-overfilled landfills, letting the natural process of decomposition return it to the earth.
This is how Williams composting works: Dining Services workers and students who scrape their plates separate organic waste from inorganic waste. The Center for Environmental Studies pays for two student-workers a day to collect the waste from the dining halls and bring it to a compost bin at the end of Spring Street. Twice a week, a garbage truck hauls the compost from Spring Street to Berkshire Compost in Sheffield, Mass. There, your leftover Bob Marley chicken, orange rinds and dirty napkins decompose into fertile soil which is sold to local farmers.
Birnie and Werner head up the pilot composting program; they hope it will lead to the College’s composting all of its organic waste. Said Werner: “This year we have doubled the composting load. We think a good goal would be 100 percent composting.” This is the first year that modest composting programs have been brought to all five dining halls. Dodd is at the forefront of composting; all of its organic waste is already composted. The others compost kitchen preparation waste and napkins but not leftover plate scrapings. Dining Services has indicated that if the Dodd composting is a success, they will next year implement more comprehensive composting in other dining halls.
Composting first came to Williams in spring 1994 when the CES began composting some of Dodd’s waste in a patch behind Dodd. The program has slowly been expanding since. This is the first year that Baxter and Greylock composted at all. Birnie and Werner said that at first, the administration seemed reluctant to begin composting, fearing that it would incur greater costs than dumping trash. Werner and Birnie have found it necessary to prove the financial as well as the environmental benefits of composting. Werner said, “Unfortunately, it’s not good enough to just show why something is good for the environment; we have to show that it saves money too. You have to give a financial incentive for everything.” The College pays $75 for every ton of garbage that gets dumped in landfills. The CES pays the compost hauler $45 dollars per load. This is a fixed cost that would not go up if the school composted more, which means that the College could save money by increasing the composting program.
Birnie added that despite some questions, Dining Services has been willing to work with them to begin the composting. “Everyone in the Administration has been very generous with their time and help. This year Alex da Silva became Associate Head of Dining Services and he has helped us a lot from the beginning.” Werner added, “A lot of people in the kitchen did have to change the way they do things, to separate the compostable waste.”
Even with the positive changes that have come thanks to the student-led composting project, Williams lags behind many other colleges as far as the breadth of environmental commitment. The weekend before last, Birnie attended a student-environmentalist meeting at Middlebury College. Students from UVM, MIT, Brandeis, Tufts, Wesleyan and Dartmouth also attended. Birnie discovered that Middlebury composts all of their food. Dartmouth, however, takes the cake for the most impressive environmental feat: the College recently built a facility that composts all of the organic waste from the School as well as the Medical Center, in addition to the sewage from the town of Hanover.
Birnie said, “We’d like to someday move toward a model like that, but first we need to demonstrate that we can compost all of our food waste.” Werner added that the $500,000 start-up cost for the “In Vessel” composting facility Dartmouth uses will mean that such a program is not likely to come to Williams anytime soon. But he did say, “It is possible to do that here. Dartmouth even turns a profit – they have a contract from the town and they pay no landfill costs.” Birnie felt the conference proved that Williams, “has a lot of room to improve. Middlebury has a very strong commitment to the environment. The President and Trustees have designated environmentalism as one of their ‘six peaks of excellence’ which define the College’s mission.” No such commitment has been made at Williams. “We’re at the bottom, though we have a good recycling program,” Werner admitted. Both Werner and Birnie agreed that change comes slowly.
Although Werner and Birnie pointed to such staff as Assistant Director to Administrative Services Tim Reisler as helpful contributors to campus environmentalism, they agreed that Williams needs a full-time environmental coordinator to see to the task of making campus for ecologically sound. “Middlebury has a coordinator and she has the authority to make real changes,” Birnie explained. “We need someone in a role with power. These things are always an uphill battle, and they shouldn’t be,” added Werner.
Birnie, Werner and Kumar all agreed that, Williams’s lack of student interest and participation in the environmental movement is partially at fault for the slow pace of change. But they also agreed that everyone wants to help the environment and that if the necessary changes are made to make participation easy, everyone would chip in. No one seems to have trouble scraping their plates at Driscoll or putting their napkins in the right bin. But Birnie pointed out, “A lot of coordinating has to be done for everything, getting everyone on board, students, the administration, Dining Services, employees of the College.”
The apparent success of the composting project does mean that Williams is heading in the right direction. Composting will be more complete next year if all goes according to plan. Birnie, Werner and Kumar have set their sights on even higher standards. They think students should begin seeing that the College uses its purchasing power and huge endowment as leverage to support environmentalism. Werner said, “It is all a matter of students voicing their opinions. The school has to address energy use, water use, and environmentally sound construction.” Birnie ended by saying, “The new dance complex is a great opportunity for the College show that it can be environmentally aware.”
Composting has worked thus far in dining halls because of the dedication of a small group of concerned students. If more students lend their voices and time to making the school more green, that too can happen.