Volume 77, Issue 20
April 7, 2006

Campus Compost Project Struggles to Raise Awareness

By Afton Woodward
Elm Staff Writer

Students have the opportunity to reduce food waste in the Dining Hall by composting, but those in charge of the project are concerned about the lack of participation.

"People are totally oblivious to composting," said Sustainability Intern Shannon Holste. Holste has been involved in sustainability projects on campus since the beginning of the semester, and she, along with the Dining Hall, is spearheading the campaign to reduce solid waste by collecting compost-friendly (non-meat) food at meals. The collected food is transported to a compost pile behind the Buildings and Grounds building and is then made into mulch.

"We put out one or two trash cans there, and we switched from white bleached napkins to non-bleached ones," said Joe Lill, Interim Director of Dining Services. According to Lill, the Dining Hall also donates its own products, including old lettuce, peels from carrots, etc., to the compost pile. "We end up with a good-sized can a day of stuff. I think [composting] is great."

Composting reduces the amount of waste that goes to a landfill and contributes to the mulching process, used in fertilizing land to grow more food. According to Lill, the Dining Hall's solid waste has been reduced by 25 percent in last five years, due partly to the recent composting and other advances such as a new food pulper that grinds food and other waste.

But students haven't quite caught on yet.

"I've sat out in the morning next to the compost bin, and if I'm sitting there, I keep them from putting trash in [the bins], but people do make loud nasty comments about composting," said Holste.

"We still have people throwing in Styrofoam, which is the opposite of what we wanted to do," said Lill. When that happens and the product is too contaminated, "sometimes it gets tossed into the dumpster," he said.

And it doesn't seem to be an accident. "I think it's premeditated, with just a few people," said Lill.

According to Holste, there is a main reason composting isn't working well at WC even while some recycling programs are.

"People recycle at home, so it's easy to pick it up again here. But most people don't compost at home, and now it's just a process of getting people used to the idea," she said. "It's going to be a long process. It has to be a behavior change."

"Students find it a pain... to separate their breakfast items, so instead of taking the minute extra, they just bypass the bin altogether, without a moment's consideration," said junior Meg Chapman.

Right now, the compost bins are out just during breakfast hours. "We'd like to be able to get the student body to accept it during breakfast, and once everybody's headed in the right direction, we can go from there," said Lill.

There is no official composting program, so most individuals are left to themselves to learn about the actual process.

Biology Professor Kate Verville recently had her Microbial Ecology class take samples from the compost pile and study the microorganisms in it. "It's amazing. It was just teeming with microorganisms," she said. She plans to use the compost pile for future class projects.

"I'm thinking of it more of an awareness project," said Verville. "If there's awareness of the ability to do composting and thinking about where your trash goes, that's a step forward. People need to think about things before they throw them away."

Another reason students are not engaged in the process, said Verville, is that "The compost is off in the back of the campus, and no one has a sense of how it works."

Holste, along with the Dining Hall, has made several efforts to reach the student body. They have sent campus-wide e-mails, displayed brochures, put notices in the napkin holders in the Dining Hall, and made signs to advertise the compost bins.

"So far there hasn't been a rise in awareness. To students, it's just a foreign concept to separate their waste," said Holste.

"Composting is definitly worthwhile. The ecological rewards more than make up for the extra second or two that it takes to sort your food," said freshman Bess Trout.

Though Lill believes the Dining Hall is doing its part to recycle and reduce waste, there is "no formal college-sponsored program to get this done," he said. "I hope we'll be able to do a little more. We have a responsibility to the campus and to the students."

Right now their main goal is just to keep the current project going. "We're trying to make people aware of composting and keep [the project] from dissolving," said Holste.