Haverford’s Dining Center currently generates 650 pounds of food waste every day, which adds up to 20,000 pounds of food waste a month. That food waste is mixed with discarded wrappers and other trash in plastic bags and is then buried in landfills. Because the trash and plastic bags are not biodegradable, the nutrients contained in the food waste cannot rejoin the environment through decomposition.
The food is, in effect, wasted. Until this week, that is.
Starting this Wednesday, students will be asked to sort the trash off of their plates after meals into special bins set up in the Dining Center. The food left on the plates will then be collected by local organics recycler Philly Compost and transformed into nutrient-rich soil that can be used as fertilizer.
This transformation occurs through composting, the human-accelerated version of the natural process by which organic matter decomposes into new soil.
“It’s like what happens in the long run on a forest floor,” said longtime member of Haverford’s Committee for Environmental Responsibility (CER) David Robinson ’14. “But there are methods you can use to turn food waste into soil in just six weeks.”
CER, a committee made up of environmentally-minded staff, faculty and students like Robinson and Eleanor Durfee, ’14, have been trying to initiate composting at the DC for quite some time now.
“Composting in the DC is an issue that has been going on for decades,” said Durfee. “Both the dining center staff and facilities have been on board with the project, but tiny logistical issues always got in the way.”
Plans to compost Haverford’s food waste have included the purchase of an industrial food composter, which comes at a cost of $115,000. The proposal was rejected because of the high cost, but administrative support of the project remained strong, according to Durfee. Later plans included a composting package provided by Haverford’s regular trash pick-up service, but this also failed when the composting container proved too big to fit in the DC’s loading dock.
“We thought that was the end for a while,” said Durfee, “but then Bryn Mawr started working with this group called Philly Compost. It’s worked out incredibly well and we’re hoping to piggy-back off of them.”
After a student resolution to promote composting at the DC was passed in Spring 2012, the students on CER have struggled to find a method of composting that would be both effective and cost-neutral for the College.
“The DC and Facilities have been really cooperative, but their emphasis is cost neutrality because they have to work within the budget that the college has now,” said Robinson.
CER planners reached a breakthrough when they realized that the amount of food waste picked up by Philly Compost would reduce the total number of trash pick-ups needed at the DC. Haverford currently spends $1,300 a month on three trash pick-ups a week from the Dining Center. With Philly Compost, Haverford could reduce the amount of trash pick-ups needed to just once a week.
“The DC is not going to have nearly as much waste by things being composted so they can pay less for trash pick-up and more for compost pick-up. This makes cost neutrality possible,” said Robinson.
CER has promised to pay for any initial overhead costs, such as purchasing compost containers, out of its own “Greening Haverford” Fund.
“It is cost neutral for us, basically,” added Durfee. “It’s a win-win.”
On its website, phillycompost.com, Philly Compost is described as “a local, woman-owned business that provides composting-related services in the Greater Philadelphia area.” Swarthmore graduate Lee Meinicke founded Philly Compost in 2009 and has since added notable area businesses such as The Franklin Fountain, Valley Forge Casino Resort, and Bryn Mawr College to her clientele.
The compost produced from Haverford waste will be sold to local homes, farms and businesses, which could include Haverford itself.
“We could buy back our compost to use in our grounds,” said Durfee. “But we already have a lot of leftover compost from facilities because they process all of their leaves and all of their clippings… Philly Compost will probably distribute it to local farms and local people who can enrich their own soil with it.”
“It’s repurposing the waste, but I wouldn’t call it waste any more because it’s eventually going to turn back to soil,” added Robinson.
CER planners hope Wednesday’s kick-off will help students and DC workers adjust to composting before it is permanently adopted next semester.
Associate Director of Dining Services Anthony Condo shares in CER’s enthusiasm.
“We will not need any extra labor for this process, just some extra training,” he said in an email. “Once everyone has gotten over the learning curve, it should be second nature. This is the first time for me being involved in a composting program, so I am excited to see the outcomes.”
As seniors, Robinson and Durfee both feel composting at the Dining Center is the crowning achievement of their time at CER.
“Having worked on this for three years,” said Robinson, “it’s really exciting to be a senior and and be like ‘wow my last year and this actually may happen,’ and it will actually make a real tangible impact in terms of diverting a lot of our waste.”
Information on what can and cannot be composted will be provided by CER workers in the DC on Wednesday, as well as on fliers posted around campus. More information on composting can be found here.