College sustainability group improves campus composting options

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The College's dining services and Student Assembly work to increase on-campus composting. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

In an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19, dining halls at the College of William and Mary have increased options for take-out and prepackaged food for the fall 2020 semester. While reusable dinnerware is still available, take-out containers and plastic cups have become the go-to option for many students who are concerned about cleanliness. While disposable containers may be more sanitary, they also create more waste.

Last month, the College’s 328th Student Assembly  passed a bill that allocates funding for six new composting bins in various locations around campus. Sen. Patrick Salsburg ’21, who introduced the bill, hopes that it will help mitigate the effects of increased food waste on campus.

“This bill is really important due to the minimal amount of composting already in existence on campus and the large increase in take out options recently from dining halls that has led to an overwhelming amount of waste being produced on a daily basis,” Salsburg said in an email. “Since many students care deeply about the environment and their impact on it, these new compost bins will enable students to more easily access ways to compost because composting will hopefully no longer be an afterthought.”

In addition to already existing bins behind the Sadler Center and DuPont Hall, the new compost bins will be located by Commons and Marketplace Dining Halls, Green and Gold Village, the Integrated Science Center, Sorority Court, St. George Tucker Hall and the Sadler Terrace.

SA Secretary of Sustainability John Cho ’23 underscored the importance of maintaining sustainability efforts, even during the pandemic.

“This initiative was made possible through students advocating for a greater need to access of composting due to an increase of “grab and go” services in our dining halls,” Cho said in an email. “W&M is lucky to have such a dedicated community of students passionate about promoting sustainability that help affect change. I believe that different initiatives, like sustainability, tend to get lost in the pandemic.”

Dining sustainability intern Dorian Miller ’22 emphasized that W&M Dining is committed to sustainability by using compostable materials for their take-out boxes. Some materials that appear to be plastic, such as the cups found at Marketplace and Commons, are actually made of vegetable starches and are fully compostable. An “EcoWare” or “Greenware” label indicates that a material is indeed compostable.

“Having more bins around campus will make it much easier for students to compost all around campus. Up until now, we have had only two compost bins: one outside Sadler and one behind DuPont Hall. With these new bins, students will be able to compost almost anywhere on campus, which is especially important now with the compostable supplies being used for take-out dining across campus.”

“Having more bins around campus will make it much easier for students to compost all around campus,” Miller said in an email. “Up until now, we have had only two compost bins: one outside Sadler and one behind DuPont Hall. With these new bins, students will be able to compost almost anywhere on campus, which is especially important now with the compostable supplies being used for take-out dining across campus.”

Before the new composting bins, Dining Sustainability Fellow Sam Laveson ’20 said that students would have to walk far in order to compost their items, which resulted in many students throwing compostable items in the trash due to the inconvenience. The dining sustainability team hopes that new compost bins will encourage students to compost what they can, to reduce trash and recycling overflow and costs.

In addition to creating awareness, the dining sustainability team has faced other challenges, including contamination and overflowing bins.

“Contamination in this context is when non-compostable items are placed into compost bins,” Laveson said in an email. “Generally, the only things that should go into compost bins are food (any type of food and food scraps are compostable here, since the items are processed industrially); paper products (such as napkins, paper bags, and pizza boxes); and anything that says “compostable” or “greenware” on it (such as several varieties of cups and utensils in the dining halls). Contamination has been and on-and-off issue in nearly all of our compost bins. To avoid this, we will be putting stickers on top of all current and future public compost bins, saying what can and/or cannot go into them. That way, students and community members will see the signage every time before they open the bins.”

In the past, the compost bin behind DuPont has filled up faster than the dining sustainability interns can handle. This year, Laveson is serving as the first full-time dining sustainability employee and is helping to develop a concrete pick-up and transportation plan to meet the growing composting demand.

Laveson explained how the sustainability team is making composting a reality on campus by preparing the bins for students.

“The main compost-related work that the dining sustainability team does for composting is designing signage and spray-painting bins; creating announcements and presenting to student groups; and holding volunteer sessions for any students to help other students sort compostable, recyclable, and disposable items at both the Tribe Truck and Marketplace,” Laveson said. “Once we get the additional public compost bins put in place, we will also be regularly checking them for contamination, and transporting them as need be to the loading docks behind the dining halls.”

The dining sustainability team has worked closely with SA and Natural Organic Processes Enterprise, the company responsible for transporting campus compost to an industrial facility. Ultimately, Laveson said that funding is the first and most important factor in ensuring the composting program can run smoothly. Obtaining the compost bins themselves is only one portion of the process — transporting and processing the compost is expensive, which is why the SA funding is vital.

Salsburg connected the initiative to the College’s larger sustainability goals.

“William & Mary set the goal last year of achieving a carbon neutral footprint within the next couple years, so the implementation of these additional compost bins should help W&M achieve this. With the rise in sea level and the increase in severe weather impacting communities like William & Mary, it is important that we do as much as possible to minimize the already disastrous climate crisis — even when our elected officials fail to pass common sense legislation (like the Green New Deal) to counteract the climate crisis.”

“William & Mary set the goal last year of achieving a carbon neutral footprint within the next couple years, so the implementation of these additional compost bins should help W&M achieve this,” Salsburg said. “With the rise in sea level and the increase in severe weather impacting communities like William & Mary, it is important that we do as much as possible to minimize the already disastrous climate crisis — even when our elected officials fail to pass common sense legislation (like the Green New Deal) to counteract the climate crisis.”

Cho said that SA plans to work with the administration and student organizations to continue the momentum. Ultimately, he hopes students will find individual ways to contribute to sustainability efforts.

“I hope that with greater access to composting on-campus, students are able to do their part in being sustainable,” Cho said. “While understanding that things like sorting trash and compostable creates extra steps, it’s all about personal responsibility — it’s up to you to decide and take care of our Earth.”