Composting expands across campus, hits South 40 residence halls

Elizabeth Phelan | Staff Writer

Washington University celebrated a sustainability victory this semester as composting efforts expanded both in residential halls and dining facilities across campus. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated students and like-minded faculty members, composting is now available at the Danforth University Center, Parkside Cafe and every dorm on the South 40.

“Just this semester we’re seeing the new addition of Parkside–they rolled out their composting… the DUC expansion, Res Halls…and Knight and Bauer are doing kitchen composting as well, which was new last year, and they have quite a bit of volume coming out of that space,” said Cassie Hage, Wash. U.’s sustainability manager. “So kind of an explosion.”

Dining facilities will feature expanded composting availabilities in high-volume areas such as the DUC.

“Dining services agreed to expand composting in the areas by the dish return in the DUC to enable that space to have some composting presence,” Hage said. “We’re hopeful that that will be part of a two-phase rollout, and [we] will hopefully expand it to other areas in the DUC as well.”

The Washington University Green Ambassadors (WUGAs) are expanding last semester’s pilot compost program to all South 40 Residence Halls. Each suite or dorm room that signs up via the online link will be given a bright green, five-gallon composting bucket that can be emptied into the floor-wide compost receptacle.

“Last year, Student Sustainability Board with College Council helped fund the first compost pilot program that was only available to five residential colleges on the South 40,” said Mandy Huang, a sophomore who is co-leading the residential composting initiative. “But this year it’s being offered to the entire South 40. Every floor has its own compost bin, [and there’s] a large one in the trash rooms, so people who don’t want to have compost bins can also compost their to-go boxes, napkins [and] food.”

The buckets are designed to be sealable and clean.

“The liners keep the inside clean so you don’t really have to wash it out,” Huang said. “You can also collect your compost in your own bag or your own little container and take it to the end of your hall in your trash room and you can compost it there. The compost is open to everyone.”

A substantial change from the pilot program was the bucket distribution method.

“Instead of taking them to the dorms or having an event where they could just get them, we hosted a compost info-session where the WUGAs this year made a video about how to compost, and we did a fun Kahoot with nine questions on how to waste sort and then everyone got their buckets,” Huang said.

The first wave of student signups was a considerable success.

“Right now, there are 60 individual buckets that have been distributed to students, and we’re in the process of getting 150 more, because there’s so much interest,” said Maggie Newberry, a sophomore WUGA.

Much of the material from Bear’s Den can be diverted into either recycling or compost.

“A lot of cups in BD are actually compostable. If it’s not recyclable, it’s compostable. If you check the label [and] it says Greenware or PLA plastic, it’s compostable,” Huang said. “Instead of just fruit and vegetable peels, [the compost bins] can take garden cuttings, meat, brown uncoated napkins and white napkins and PLA plastic,” a number seven plastic that is specifically labeled as Greenware.

Though off to a promising start, the new program has faced its share of difficulties.

“Wash. U.’s a challenging waste system for our dining services, because they’re relatively decentralized and they’re mainly geared towards the convenience mindset,” Hage said. “Working within that built infrastructure is a good solution, but at the same time I don’t want people to lose sight of the opportunities to reduce waste by opting for reusables when available, bringing their own if possible…Especially the water cups. Leave those; use your own water bottle.”

Huang said that the biggest challenge to the new composting program is reducing contamination, or the presence of non-compostable material in compost bins.

“Composting at Wash. U. can only take up to 3% contamination,” Huang said. “The most common thing that’s contamination would be our plastic forks, or sauce packets, or even wax paper cups.”

Huang also noted that most students assume some non-compostable material can be composted, for instance, sauce packets.

“You can put the sauce in the compost, but you can’t put the aluminum plastic-y packets there,” she said. “Also, pizza boxes. You can compost cardboard pizza boxes that aren’t super heavily inked. So if you get pizza from Subway, you can compost the box, but if you get the thinner paper ones that are waxed, you can’t compost that. And coffee cups that are waxed on the inside, unless specifically stated, any paper products that are waxed that don’t say compostable aren’t compostable or recyclable. A lot of people think that because it’s paper, it’s compostable or recyclable.”

Newberry noted that there was a gap in the support for the composting initiative.

“I think that the faculty and staff [that] are working more closely with the students really see how much students do care about making the campus more eco-friendly, but the board and the higher-ups at Wash. U. don’t really see,” Newberry said. “There’s a disconnect between the Wash. U. higher-ups and the Wash. U. staff linked in directly with students. So that’s definitely a challenge.”

The new composting initiative provides more opportunities for students to make more sustainable choices.

“I would encourage everyone to take advantage of the compost availability at Wash. U., especially in the South 40. When you have both composting and recycling, you can divert up to 98% of your waste,” said Huang. “A lot of people think that, ‘I’m recycling, I’m doing a good deed.’ And it is a good deed, but focus on taking responsibility for the impact that you have, the materials that you use, anything. Be that [person] carrying around a reusable bottle, carrying around your own silverware, even buying clothes that are lasting, thrifting or buying second hand rather than buying new. And only taking what you need–only buy what you need to reduce waste.”

Hage and Newberry both underscored the importance of vocal student support in the push for a more sustainable campus.

“This has been a long process, and it was started by students in the very beginning, and it continues to be moved along by vocal student support,” Hage said.

Newberry spoke about the need for continued student support if sustainability efforts are going to be successful.

“We really need students to be vocal…If students can get behind campaigns like Fossil Free and composting in other places, it’s a lot more powerful,” Newberry said. “Just be present, be there, that’s what students need to do.”

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