Letting nature take its course sometimes requires a surprising level of effort.
Bryn Mawr College produces a substantial quantity of food waste, and composting it—allowing natural processes to transform it into nourishment for growing plants—has long been an appealing prospect to environmentally conscious members of the college community.
Last year, a group of students investigated composting options for the College as part of a senior seminar in environmental studies. The students estimated that the incineration of the College's food waste releases about 9,000 lbs. of carbon per year, a figure that could be reduced by composting. According to their calculations, the potential benefits of composting outweighed the costs—but they discovered a number of challenges to be overcome.
Now, with the support of key staff members and patrons of the College's dining halls, the student Self-Government Association's Sustainable Food Committee has taken a critical step toward confronting those challenges: measuring the amount of compostable waste produced by the dining halls.
A preliminary three-day trial last November established a rough figure of about 350 lbs. of compostable food waste per day for each of Bryn Mawr's two dining halls. Students who supervised this effort made a report to the College's Board of Trustees, which expressed its support for the effort.
A more extensive, two-week trial was completed on April 1. This second test involved an agreement with the College's waste-disposal contractor, which collected the compostable material separately and hauled it to its closest composting facility.
Getting This Far
The idea of composting the College's food waste has prompted interest for years, says Director of Dining Services Bernie Chung-Templeton, but municipal waste-disposal regulations complicate the issue.
Lower Merion Township supports closed-container composting of household food waste, and any residential landscape waste the township collects at curbside is composted and offered to township residents as a soil amendment free of charge. But food waste on the commercial or institutional scale at which the College operates is subject to a different level of sanitation regulation.
“The regulations are strict about speedy removal of food waste,” says Grounds Director Ed Harman, who has worked closely with the students and Chung-Templeton on the composting trials. “Even if we could obtain a variance, the quantity of waste we generate would require a good deal of space if we kept it on campus through the composting cycle.”
Rising juniors Daniele Arad-Neeman and Karen Leitner, who joined the SGA's Sustainable Food Committee as first-year students, were aware of these issues, thanks to a senior-project presentation given in the spring of 2011 by senior environmental-studies concentrators Hope Fillingim, Julie Griffin, Dawn Hathaway, Hannah Payne, and Larken Wright-Kennedy.
But Arad-Neeman and Leitner were sure there was enough community support for composting to find a way around those obstacles. To demonstrate student support, the two presented a resolution in favor of composting food waste at the SGA's Plenary meeting in the fall of 2011. The resolution passed easily, giving the project a new momentum.
Meanwhile, seniors Nora Schmidt and Jasmine Arnold had been investigating composting possibilities on their own. Because of their part-time jobs in the dining hall, they had a sense of how much food waste the College generated.
The passage of the Plenary resolution brought Arad-Neeman, Leitner, Schmidt, and Arnold together, and the composting project became the main focus of the Sustainable Food Committee's efforts during the 2011-12 academic year.
Support from all sectors of the community was necessary to make the measurement project work, the students say, and they got it.
“We inherited this project from older peers who let us know that it was going to be hard—but also that there were amazing resources for it,” says Leitner.
During both the first and second trials, the Sustainable Food Committee recruited student volunteers to stand near the trash cans in the dining halls to remind diners to scrape their compostable waste into the designated containers.
After the successful completion of the first trial, which set a baseline for post-consumer food waste, Dining Services stepped in, providing posters and other educational materials for the second, longer trial.
Prep cooks in Dining Services were also involved in the second trial, which measured pre-consumer, as well as post-consumer, waste.
“Composting requires some extra effort on the part of Dining Services workers,” says Schmidt. “But they were happy to contribute to the project. Everybody seems to be enthusiastic about reducing waste.”
Communication of the project's goals and progress were critical to its success, says Arnold: “I learned to think about all the ways in which people might be affected. Keeping everyone in the loop is really important.”
Now that the College has established a reliable figure for the amount of compostable waste it generates, it is in a better position to weigh its options, says Harman, who plans to investigate several alternatives over the summer.
One possibility is collaborating with other local institutions to establish a composting route with the College's current trash hauler. Harman will also look into finding a suitable composting facility that is closer to campus than the Delaware facility used during the trial; collaborating with other institutions on hauling to a closer facility is also on the table.
“I was not really expecting to have made this much progress by this time,” says Arad-Neeman. “But we got an overwhelming sense that people really wanted this.”