Closer Look: The fight for better composting

Haeon Yoon

Composting at the College is not as easy as placing Vegware and leftover food in the appropriate bins; rather, it is a complex process that is at the heart of the College’s and town’s larger debates over sustainability.

Composting at the College is currently centered around the efforts of dining services, which sends leftover food and other organic matter to TAM Waste Management to be composted. Because the College mixes food waste and Vegware products in the same compost bin, the compost is used as filler for streets in construction projects. It cannot  be sold to gardeners or farmers as organic compost because the Vegware in the College’s compost is not fully organic.

In addition to composting food waste in the dining halls, leafy waste and wood chips from tree maintenance are picked up by the College’s grounds team to be composted at local farms and landscaping companies. There are also two composting toilets at the ’66 Environmental Center, although recent construction additions have not included these water-saving alternatives.

This fall, in an effort to reduce waste, the College eliminated single-use plastic water bottles from all catered campus events. In a campus-wide announcement, Provost Dukes Love stated that instead of providing plastic water bottles, dining services and the catering office have opted to supply 3- and 5-gallon reusable jugs. In circumstances where students might need to-go bottles of water, the College will instead be providing water encased in aseptic cartons in another step to reduce plastic usage. This shift is predicted to reduce the number of plastic water bottles used by 18,000. 

“There’s still a recognition that these bottles are single-use items and are not ideal, so hopefully people will still use regular water bottles and reusable glasses, and for wider events the College offers compostable PLA cups,” Interim Director of the Zilkha Center Mike Evans said. “The wraparound solution is to make sure that there is composting happening everywhere, and that the compost makes it to the TAM’s outdoor industrial composting system.” 

This movement away from the use of plastic at the College was preceded by a town-wide ban of single-use plastics and polystyrene (Styrofoam) that took effect in May 2015. As a result of this ban, establishments in Williamstown now provide paper bags, compostable bioplastics and corn-based PLA cutlery as an alternative to plastic bags and utensils. 

Recent changes made by dining services and facilities also include composting buddies, a program in which volunteer students encourage others to compost, as well as signs by the clearing stations that explain whether different substances are compostable. Nevertheless, there are many instances in which the trash is not separated correctly, causing trash and compost to be intermixed. “Any bag that gets co-mingled with items that are not compostable will be thrown into regular trash which is problematic and defeating the purpose,” Executive Chef Mark Thompson explained. 

In an op-ed published in the Record, Niku Darafshi ’21 argued that the changes made have not been sufficient. “While the ban is quick to lay out the punishments for not complying, it fails to establish a biodegradation plan,” she wrote, highlighting a lack of composting bins for vegware at prominent town locations (“The failures of Williamstown’s plastic ban: On the negative environmental impacts of using Vegware,” Oct. 9, 2019). 

Bio-plastics, which Williamstown stores including Tunnel City Coffee provide as compostable alternatives for plastic straws, cream cheese tubs and to-go cups, can only be broken down in industrial composting facilities. Local businesses, however, are not required by the town to provide separate bins for compostable goods. “It’s a very superficial endeavor that in turn affects how the town treats its waste,” Darafshi said in a separate interview with the Record.

The Williamstown CO2 lowering committee, which promotes sustainable living in the town, has been pushing for a town composting initiative for businesses. Evans, who is a member of the committee, said that composting “has gotten some traction in businesses, some were already doing that, and Spring Street Market has already been sending their waste to a pig farm, but it didn’t gain as much traction as we had hoped. That would be something to come back to.” 

Some students have also raised concerns over the fact that the majority of the College’s initiatives are primarily focused on composting instead of waste reduction. Marco Vallejos ’20, student leader of the Williams Recovery of All Perishable Surplus (WRAPS), a registered student organization that packages and delivers leftover dining hall food into individual meals for community partners in North Adams, emphasized the important steps to be taken before food gets composted in dining halls. 

“There’s an upside-down triangle which is how we think about food waste,” Vallejos explained. “Basically the first level is humans – you want to feed humans before you feed animals, before you make energy, before you compost, and before it goes into landfills. The idea is that if you hit all those marks, you will have nothing going into the landfill. So composting is good, but we’d rather take edible food and distribute it to others before it gets composted.”

Speaking on the utilization of single-use products, Darafshi similarly stressed how composting only offers half of a solution. “It all comes down to the fact that we keep using these single-use products. This is like a Band-Aid over an issue that is more than just ‘let’s replace it all with compostable products,’” she said. “This isn’t a big campus, it’s not like people are going between colleges, it’s not hard to keep using reusable things … but instead we use single-use products, and that’s the core of the issue.” 

Evans noted that one of the strategic planning working group discussions has focused on waste and recycling, in an attempt to find a holistic composting solution beyond food consumption. 

“In some ways that are starting to be piloted, we are in the process of signing an agreement with an organization that’s going to do a full campus waste assessment, and can do some planning with us and help us figure out our waste diversion strategies,” Evans said. “We are hoping that holistic campus waste assessment will help push the conversation about having more holistic solutions around composting on campus.”

“I also hope that that assessment can help facilitate productive conversations with the town about how we can work together on this initiative. Because the bins that are on Spring Street are the town’s, and not the College’s and we should be thinking about holistic solutions because we are very intertwined,” he added.

Students have also raised concerns over a lack of stewardship in the College community. “There’s no reason why WRAPS or collecting the compost can’t be something every single student could do one day a year,” Darafshi said. “There isn’t this push to make students uncomfortable. I think people are doing a lot of the learning in an academic setting, when we can radically change that in ways that aren’t just in class.” 

Vallejos similarly felt students could be more involved. “Don’t try to conceptualize it or make it academic so you lose sight of what it means to be a steward, or to make it so fun that you lose sight of what it means,” he said. “If we really want to appreciate the environment we live in, the whole point of Mountain Day, we should be telling people to bring their own mug when they hike up Stony Ledge.”

“In the 3R’s, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ recycle is the last one, but we have focused so much on the recycling aspect of it,” Vallejos added.

“Caring about the environment is limiting our footprint, not just about hiking and eating doughnuts,” Darafshi said.