A call for composting awareness

Composting is the process by which organic materials decompose into a nutrient-rich substance that provides energy for new life. Composting occurs in all natural ecosystems – decaying plants and animals seep back into the soil, where they nourish living roots – and humanity is recognizing the value of emulating natural models.

By composting organic waste (which consists of all food materials and unrefined paper products, like napkins and tea bags), people are diverting it from burgeoning landfills – where it will simply take up space that could be used for other, non-recyclable materials – and are simultaneously producing a lush organic fertilizer.

Williams College dining halls generate one ton of food waste daily; this is 80 percent of the dining halls’ total waste stream. While a certain element of this – non-edible food items, like rinds and bones – is inevitable, a large percentage of this number – that comprised of student plate scrapings and napkins – could and should be reduced by a shift in student consciousness.

Until we can devise a way to diminish our waste in the first place, however, we must accept composting as the second-best solution. In addition to diverting over 200 tons of organic waste from landfills each year and putting valuable nutrients back into the soil, composting saves Williams money: tens of thousands of dollars per year that would otherwise be spent on tipping fees.

Despite the necessity of composting to a sustainable food service program, the Williams method has not achieved full sustainability – environmentally or economically. In the current program, the College is losing money (and burning fuel) to have its organic waste hauled to a farm 25 miles south of Williamstown, where it is composted and used to fertilize crops. Though the food waste is being processed into a usable soil amendment, Williams has no direct access to this end product; B&G purchases its fertilizers elsewhere.

Greensense, the student environmental group on campus, would like to see the program transition to a scheme more economically and environmentally viable. As sustainability is largely about responsibility,

Greensense is interested in bringing the composting process to Williamstown. Keeping our daily ton of food waste local – where we are confronted with the putrid reality of our consumptive habits – should entice us on campus to decrease the volume of food we waste. The ultimate goal of every composter is to render him/herself unnecessary. Internalizing the process will eliminate hauling and make available a soil amendment that can replace some of the fertilizer B&G currently purchases from outside sources. Finally, establishing a solid local program should provide a base from which expansion is possible. In the future, Williamstown businesses and residents can be invited to participate.

Regardless of careful cost analysis, localizing the composting process will result in some upfront costs to the college. While avoided hauling and landscaping fees should, in the long run, balance the costs of running an on-site operation, we feel that the environmental benefits of the program justify its transformation – even at a small financial loss to the College. What do you think? Is composting a worthwhile use of the College’s resources? Greensense is looking for student input as it considers the program’s future, and we’d love to hear from you. Please email any thoughts to Briana Halpin, 04blh@williams.edu.