College compost fertilizes local farms

Though recent Record headlines may suggest otherwise, College community members have been dealing positively with waste for some time now. But unlike many here, Dining Services is only concerned with two types, and neither is digested: pre-consumer composting deals with food waste that is created during preparation, and post-consumer composting involves all of the food students scrape from their plates after each meal. Both types of food waste are collected into bins and picked up for delivery to local farms six times a week.

Food waste produced from the summer through November is taken to Caretaker Farm on Hancock Rd., while waste from November through the spring is delivered to a container in Agway, a midway stopping point in its greater journey to Holiday Farm in Dalton, Mass. In 2006, the College hauled 21 tons of food waste to Holiday Farm during the regular school year.

If students are wondering what happened to that fork they dropped into the composting bin a few nights ago, they don’t have to look very far: only half a mile past Five Corners at Caretaker Farm.

“We have a lot of silverware in our fields,” said Bridget Zasada. She and her husband Don have been the primary farmers at Caretaker Farm for two years.

At Caretaker Farm, the food – a source high in nitrogen – is combined with a high-carbon source, such as leaves, wood chips or straw. Turned periodically over a period of four to six months, the components form a stable matter (the compost), which is then spread on vegetable fields before planting season. For an organic farm like Caretaker Farm, the compost takes the place of a granular fertilizer and becomes the farm’s primary fertilizing source.

“We have a wonderful relationship with the College,” said Don Zasada. The arrangement has worked so favorably that he has extended the delivery period into the end of fall, he explained. He also hopes to begin receiving the College’s food waste earlier in the spring. “[The waste is] a product that institutions would pay to get rid of, but we love it,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Students aren’t the only ones scraping to contribute leftovers to the greater good. The fryer oil and leftover grease from all campus dining halls are saved and picked up by a farmer from, aptly named, Flying Pigs Farm. The fryer oil is ultimately converted into bio-diesel fuel for trucks at the farm.

Four students are currently working on a project for their Environmental Planning course to identify local farms that could work with the College’s sustainability program. Students aim to create a relationship with farms that are closer to campus than faraway Holiday Farm in Dalton, Mass. and who could work with the College’s food waste year-round.

The group has been busy meeting with Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services, and the group’s client, discussing Volpi’s goals for the project and contacting potential farms in the area. “Ideally we’ll gain familiarity with the nuances and challenges of environmental planning while helping the College address a pressing need – for an economically feasible and environmentally sustainable way to deal with food waste,” said Elissa Brown ’09, one of the students working on the project.

Volpi is pleased with the students’ current project and looks forward to working with more local farms. “The closer the farm is, the stronger our relationship,” Volpi said. “And that means for me and the students.”

Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of student dining, echoed this idea, citing the College’s successful summer internship program with Peace Valley Farm and the opportunity it gives students to work hands-on with a local organic farm. “It creates a true educational experience,” he said.

Reducing waste

In addition to continuing its composting efforts, Dining Services aims to reduce the amount of waste. At Paresky, Snack Bar manager Carol Luscier has been instrumental in implementing reusable and biodegradable materials. Luscier was responsible for introducing the reusable black plastic plates to Snack Bar this fall. It is projected that the College will save 175,000 biodegradable plates within a nine-month period.

“The department as a whole has been outstanding on sustainability,” Luscier said, stressing that the improvement “from what we used to do until now is huge.” At the same time, she keeps her emphasis on the future. “We need to continue to look for new ways to improve,” she said.

Those who have noticed that their spoons no longer melt in their morning coffee can also thank Luscier. The old biodegradable spoons, which made their appearance in dining halls a year ago, are made of corn, but Luscier recently found a different supplier, Taterworks, that uses potato starch to make spoons that don’t melt and are still bio-degradable.

Recent improvements have been made in composting outside of Williams’ dining halls at all-campus events like picnics or Harvest Dinner. “We’ve purchased plates and silverware in order to reduce the amount of paper and plastic we use,” Volpi said. The process also involves examining the menus themselves. Abayasinghe explained the concept of “green menuing,” which translates to planning dishes that are “easy to scrape and stack,” he said.

New clearing stations, instated last spring, are now set up to accept plates, silverware and trays, all of which are transferred back to dining hall units and washed. “If we look at Harvest Dinner, we served 1300 meals,” said Volpi. “In the past, all of that would have been on paper plates.” Dining service employees are also on hand to scrape plates and collect food waste to be ready for composting.

Off-site catering has been a “learning experience,” according to Volpi. “We have to train our staff, teach them how to scrape plates; we’ve had to train ourselves, looking at how we menu.”

Back inside dining halls, Dining Services’ final task is to do a better job collecting waste that can be composted at dish-room windows. For one, Paresky encountered major difficulties collecting food waste this past spring, partly because students did not know where things went and existing signs did not help.

“We had partnered with Greensense on outreach and creating signs [to guide students on what to compost],” Abaysinghe said. Though the signs were visually stunning, “There was too much information at one time” for students to get the direction they needed, he said. In response, more succinct signs were created. The design was simplified to a round circle, displaying the words, “Food and Compost,” and an arrow pointing to where students should place their excess food.

Still, logistical issues in Paresky remain: compost bins are located in a very difficult place for staff to access. Bins are also small and have to be emptied three to four times per meal. Volpi is working on proposing a plan that would include reorganizing the current space to house larger containers whose capacity would last an entire meal. Similar improvements are in the works for Driscoll and Greylock.

Room for improvement

Katie White ’11 is no stranger to working with Williams on sustainability and waste, as she studied “Solid Waste at Williams College” over the summer. She created a comprehensive report, which was supported by the Luce Foundation. “I was impressed by the initiatives going on,” White said. “But there are things that sometimes people don’t see.”

White is a member of the Thursday Night Group, which is working to reinstate composting in upper-class houses and co-ops. In the next week, the group will be distributing compost buckets to various houses. It will appoint one point-person per house and educate house members on the long-term effects of their efforts.

Dave Moore ’10 is the co-director of Williams Recovery of All Perishable Surplus (WRAPS), a group of students who transport unsoiled leftover food four days a week to two North Adams locations: the Louison House, a shelter for women and children, and the Salvation Army. WRAPS restarted a few weeks ago, and Moore, who participated last year, said that part of WRAPS’ draw is that “you know what you’re doing is really helping people,” as students are able to witness the impact of their actions firsthand.

The existing system of composting and eliminating food waste at the College has been many years in the making. Before Volpi arrived in 2002, students donated their time driving from dining hall to dining hall, collecting food scraps from dining halls every morning. While acknowledging how far the College has come, all those involved with managing food waste agree that much room for improvement remains.

Over the next four years, White hopes to “make sustainability more accessible” for students. There is a certain amount of hard work ahead, but “we’re headed in the right direction,” she said.

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