It is all too easy to forget about the mechanics underlying our dining halls and composting set-up, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t critical to remember them. The Dining Services staff work constantly and tirelessly to prepare, serve and provide for more than 2000 students at the College. Not only do they have to cook and clean day in day out, but they also accommodate a vast range of dietary restrictions and try as best as they can to be sustainable. Awareness about the hidden, intangible work that visibly presents itself to us every day in the form of clean plates and fresh meals is difficult to internalize when we aren’t always witnessing the work behind the scenes. However, familiarizing ourselves with the circumstances that occur in the kitchens and the dish room and understanding how small choices make big differences are important in many ways. There are actions that we can take as a community to continue making the dining staff’s job easier and to not take their work for granted. In the meantime, we can also clear up some misperceptions that pertain to our composting system, which ultimately can make our campus even more renewable and environmentally friendly.
When I started working as a dishwasher at Mission Dining Hall, I was astounded by the never-ending work that needs to be done. Some staff members have shifts from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., always on their feet and, unfortunately, always expecting a bigger mess than there needs to be. We are adults, and yet we somehow neglect to notice the clearly labeled trash and compost bins. Plates of uneaten food and napkins would appear on the (now broken) conveyer belt in the dish room at Mission. One morning, when I was cleaning out the upstairs bins for dining hall returns, I shed out an empty pack of cigarettes amidst the mess of congealed food. Trash cans are a mere 10 steps away, but again, it appears that forgetfulness takes over. We forget that people are cleaning up after us. I’ll admit that I was a perpetrator of this mentality; I lacked consideration or awareness of the people behind the conveyor belt that magically whisks our plates away. The miniscule amount of time and energy we save when leaving a mess only adds more time and energy to someone else’s already busy plate. I think we all could bear a smidgen more responsibility and exponentially make a huge difference. We are adults, after all, even if we are all guilty of chowing on chicken fingers and tater tots sometimes.
As a dishwasher, I’ve also learned about the unspoken, concealed trade-offs that must occur when efficiency and time must be maximized. Our campus prides itself on having compost facilities at every dining hall. However, what students don’t know and what is not explicitly revealed is that this “compost” is normally deemed trash regardless; it is almost always contaminated with non-compostable items like plastic wrappers and utensils. One time while working, I even witnessed someone put their ice bag, covered in tape, right into the “compost only” bin. I tried to speak to him about it, a little intimidated as a first-year (in my purple Williams Dining hat and one-size- fits- all apron), but he just shrugged his shoulders. After he left, I returned to the compost bin, trying (and failing) to remove the ice bag. I resigned myself to the fact that the company that picks up the compost from the College would refuse to take it. That one ice bag had turned compost into trash. The student made a deliberate choice with an easy but an irrevocable and harmful consequence.
I hope cognizance of this issue will help Williams become a more appreciative and environmentally aware community. We are vibrant and dedicated, but we should intend to do our part alongside the many contributors to our campus, including the perpetually working and accommodating dining staff. Little actions will go a long way, whether that’s composting what is meant to be composted or clearing a plate completely, and forgetfulness can be forgotten.
Elisabeth Lualdi ’21 is from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Her major is currently undecided.