Students encourage composting

Dining halls now display signs showing the diffrence between compostable and trash items. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor

Several initiatives are actively helping students reduce the amount of food they waste, while also putting their scraps to good use.

Compost bins are located in the front of busing stations at all dining options on campus. Colorful labels remind students to scrape their plates while signage by the Zilkha Center identifies other types of organic matter – beyond unfinished omelets and leaves of lettuce – that can also be composted. 

“It’s everything. It’s not just food waste, we’ve also got napkins, cups, utensils” Mission Park First Cook David Berger said. “We buy [everything] biodegradable.”

Throughout First Days and the opening days of the school year, student guides have been amplifying the message by manning the busing stations during busy hours in the dining halls and encouraging patrons to scrape down every last bit.

Once the organic matter disappears down the chute, a process of decomposition into nutrient-rich humus  – a key element of organic farming –  is encouraged through the use of moist conditions that foster bacterial activity. This process happens at regional farms that collect the College’s organic waste. Some, such as Peace Valley Farm in  Williamstown, are direct suppliers of vegetables including lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers to the dining halls, creating an ecologically efficient cycle.

“There’s a circle of composting that goes right back to us,” Berger said. 

By composting rather than discarding organic waste, the dining halls minimize the amount of space taken up at landfills while creating a nutrient-rich byproduct that enriches local farms’ soil.

The College’s relationship with farms also pays educational dividends. Many now have special arrangements to employ students over the summer through internships.

According to Berger, one innovation the College has implemented in recent years on top of the composting system has been a scale system called LeanPath, which is used to weigh and report the food waste at Mission Park. Kitchens often use this system to measure pre-consumer waste, such as cuttings on the production line, but, at the College, it also measures post-consumer waste – the leftover food that students scrape into the bin at the end of their meal, plus other compostables.

“Williams is one of the first [colleges] in the nation to implement it in the front of the house,” Berger said. 

LeanPath’s quantification of food consumption allows dining hall managers to pinpoint wasteful practices, while also fostering awareness among staff and students – especially since the cumulative results are displayed on flat-screens placed at Mission Park’s entrance. 

Since the implementation of the system, Berger has noticed staff working more efficiently, trimming away thinner slices on vegetables, for example.

For students, Berger espouses a similar philosophy, aided in part by the layout of Mission Park that allows students to make multiple trips for more food.

“Eat all you want, but come back and take it as you need it,” Berger said.

As the College strives to become increasingly sustainable, students’ small day-to-day habits have the potential to make a significant impact alongside the College’s LEED architecture and carbon-offset purchases.

Small contributions add up. According to Berger, a meal service at Mission Park creates 200 to 300 pounds of food waste –  all of which can be turned to compost.

“When you’ve got a class or practice, you just want to throw it and go,” Berger said. “But when you think about the economic and environmental impact it has, it becomes huge.” 

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