Keeping Waste from Going to Waste: Composting on Campus

If you live in the United States, it’s likely that you do some sort of recycling on a regular basis; you separate your paper from your plastic from your glass, metal, or cardboard, and so on, and sort everything into the right place. We often assume that this alone is helping our environment, but is it enough?

Americans seem to be wasteful in their nature. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten everyday. In New York City alone, organic waste makes up one-third of all waste generated by businesses.

Most of this uneaten food ends up in landfills. However, some of it is composted. Thanks to some Gourmet Dining staff and student organizers, Manhattan College will likely begin composting organic leftovers from Locke’s Loft Dining Hall.

Spearheading this program is senior biology major and president of the Green Club, Thérèse Kelly. This change has been a long time coming for her and the rest of the club.

Last year, she and her co-president at the time met with administration and staff to propose and explore the possibility of composting, which was approved.

“I have been working on making the program become a reality, by volunteering at compost sites throughout the city to learn more about the process, learning about the necessary components for a successful compost initiative in a college setting, and most importantly, incorporating discussions about campus composting into our regular Green Club meetings,” Kelly said.

Within the Green Club is the Compost Crew, who are at the forefront of this project. They’ve recently finished writing up their plan of action for the compost program.

Kelly, a member of the club since freshman year, has a significant amount of knowledge about and experience with composting under her belt. To her, composting doesn’t feel like a chore.

“I enjoy volunteering with local environmentally oriented organizations, especially Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. Over winter break I volunteered at a couple of Bronx compost sites run by the NYC Compost Project in order to gain hands on familiarity with the compost process. Members of the Green Club also volunteered at the site in VCP in the early fall,” she said.

NYC as a whole has recently begun to crack down on food waste; last July, big businesses that generate a large amount of food waste will have to separate out their organic waste for composting or other approved processing. This includes hotels, stadiums, food manufacturers and wholesalers.

The Compost Crew is hoping to begin the project this semester, but a lot of preparation is required to make it possible.

“We’ve spent the last six weeks of the semester discussing and writing up our proposal, so that we have our plan of action to follow and carry out. We have to first determine the amount of organic waste we want to divert in our pilot project, which will allow us to select the correct compost unit as well as determine the other appropriate materials we will need to compost that specific amount of organics,” Kelly said.

Kelly sees both an “environmental benefit and educational value” in this movement.

“It would reduce the amount of organic waste occupying landfill space and create a nutrient-rich soil supplement that could be used on the campus landscape. This would be the ultimate sustainable practice, because it would repurpose food waste at the college as a natural fertilizer for the grounds at the college,” she said.

Kelly also points out that it would provide learning opportunities for students interested in abiotic and biotic components of composting.

“As a biology major, I think it would be amazing if science students could study the microorganisms that are responsible for the decomposition of the organic matter,” she said.

The compost site will be located in the Lee Hall Garden, and the Compost Crew will be collecting pre-consumer food scraps, such as fruit and vegetable peels that are rendered during food preparation in Locke’s. Post-consumer food waste, which is what’s left on student plates, will not be used in the program.

This past weekend, Green Club members raked, weeded, and collected trash around the garden in order to prep it for composting. Kelly also credits campus faculty for their support in making it all come together.

“Our collection of organics for composting will be through Gourmet Dining, and so we are working closely with Mr. Brian Weinstein to coordinate a plan by which the Compost Crew can pick up the food scraps on a regular schedule.  We have also been working closely with Mr. Andy Ryan (VP of Facilities), who has supported the idea of a compost program from the beginning and who always offers his time and assistance with the progression of the program.  Physical Plant staff have also been wonderful in supplying and transporting tools and materials for our work projects,” Kelly said.

Weinstein, General Manager of Gourmet Dining, voiced his encouragement for the compost program to The Quad as well.

“Gourmet Dining supports the MC compost crew in organic waste needs and any support needed. [We] always take an environmentally friendly approach on the day to day basis. This is a very positive practice on campus. I am all for it,” Weinstein said.

Jennifer Senecal, the dietitian nutritionist for Gourmet Dining, was also thrilled to hear about the initiative.

“It makes so much sense when you have a large dining facility with a lot of food waste-to repurpose as much as possible. Composting is a great way to do so. Gourmet Dining, as a company, is always working to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly – which I love,” Senecal said.

Senecal’s background in nutrition involves the study of policies that govern our food sources.

“From this perspective, we, as a nation, have a lot of work to do in cleaning up our food system. Much of that work will inevitably need to happen from a grassroots level. We are happy to partner with environmentally focused groups on campus to help that cause locally,” she said. “I think it’s fantastic that the students at MC have the desire to make their campus more ecologically functional and are actively working at it.”