Waste not, want not: the story behind food waste on campus

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Alvin Wu/Staff

If you’re in your first or second year at UC Berkeley, you may be completely used to having compost bins in most campus buildings and dining halls. You may have never even questioned their existence, thinking that of course UC Berkeley, with all of its sustainability-minded environmentalists, would care about returning nutrients to the ground through compost rather than allowing waste to degrade in landfills and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions!

The reality, though, is that most of those compost bins and food-waste reduction programs began only in the last four years. UC Berkeley students Kristina Duncan, Parker Jean, Mindy Kim and myself discovered how and why these practices began.

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Campus composting largely began in fall of 2010, when Claire Evans, a student at the time, decided to found the Compost Alliance, a student group that still exists today. At first, it faced pushback from administration — but shortly after, in 2011, the Compost Alliance succeeded in acquiring several grants, including one from The Green Initiative Fund for $32,000. The grant was great for paying initial costs of set up, but it still couldn’t pay for the ongoing costs of compostable bags, new signs and waste removal. Despite this, over the last several years, the Compost Alliance — working with Campus Recycling and Refuse Services, or CRRS — continues to successfully spread composting services to 17 campus buildings.

Before the Compost Alliance’s efforts, the only buildings on campus with composting were Sutardja Dai Hall, Cory Hall, International House and Durant Hall. Composting in those four buildings was championed by individuals on staff who worked there. Josh Mandel, who works in the College of Letters and Science Dean’s Office, first proposed a composting program about 10 years ago, but it was met unenthusiastically by his supervisors. In 2011, as the Compost Alliance was simultaneously established, he put forward the idea again and received a Chancellor’s Green Fund Grant. With it, he was able to set up a collection system in Durant Hall. While the fund was enough for materials, it did not include increased custodial service, meaning that for several years, Mandel collected and took out the eight compost bins every day himself, with coworkers helping in his absence. In the I-House, explains I-House business manager Shirley Spiller, composting was implemented in October 2010 due to the initiative to reach the goal of zero waste by 2020.

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Cal Dining has taken an active role in reducing the amount of food waste it sends to the landfill by starting its own programs and supporting student-led initiatives, resulting in several awards and even recognition by the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012. Some of the largest impacts have come from doing away with trays in the Crossroads dining hall, resulting in a 16-percent decrease in wasted food, and implementing the Lean Path, a program that allows staff to weigh and log food waste, resulting in a 33-percent decrease in preconsumer waste as of 2013. According to Thierry Bourroux, director of residential dining and retail at Cal Dining, other changes have included stressing to staff the importance of carefully making batches of food according to the flow of diners — allowing diners to sample food before taking an entire plate of it — using compostable to-go containers and utensils, implementing the Chews to Reuse program (reusable to-go containers) and placing compost bins directly in front of diners to make them more conscious of their contribution to the waste stream.

These more recent efforts of the Compost Alliance, Cal Dining and CRRS, however, are not the first time groups have implemented composting programs. In 1992, before many current UC Berkeley students were even born, students and community members founded the composting group Berkeley Worms. According to Lisa Bauer, the previous manager of CRRS, Berkeley Worms secured a grant from Alameda County to collect food waste from dining halls, free of charge, using a modified dairy feed truck. After loading the food waste into the truck, it grounded up the waste, transported it and spread it over bins of literal worms located at the Gill Tract. After the worms broke down the food waste, Berkeley Worms would harvest, bag and sell the rich compost.

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This lasted for several years, until the late 1990s, when the campus decided to develop the Gill Tract. At this point, Berkeley Worms moved its equipment to the Richmond Field Station. Not too long after that, however, it was asked to leave the Richmond Field Station as well, in part because the then-managers of the field station were not fans of the strong odor emanating from the bins. Unfortunately, the Berkeley Worms’ grant money ran out around this time. It would now have to charge for waste pickup, which Cal Dining was not able or willing to pay for. These events contributed to Berkeley Worms’ decision to rename itself the Bay Worms and transition its materials to the Alameda Point Collaborative to become a noncampus entity.

After Berkeley Worms stopped collecting, the only composting the campus engaged in was green waste, or biodegradable waste composed of things such as plant trimmings, because the city of Berkeley did not accept food waste at the time. There was also no staff, funding or a location to which to send the food waste — and, therefore, no reason to start a major composting program. This remained the situation until Cal Dining began its composting efforts and Claire Evans founded the Compost Alliance.

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There is still much more to do to bring composting to the entire campus and further reduce food waste at its sources. Graciela Guerrero, supervisor at the Golden Bear Cafe, emphasizes that as much as staff can try to reduce food waste behind the scenes and send what still remains to the compost bins, consumers also need to make an effort to read the signs on bins and correctly sort their waste.

Shannon Davis, a UC Berkeley student who has worked as an associate with the Zero Waste Research Center, says that she believes it is key for UC Berkeley to begin educating students about waste, because many people have never encountered composting before coming here and do not know which materials are compostable. Only with strong student, staff and faculty support for composting will the programs become permanent, campuswide fixtures.

Image Sources: SuSanA Secretariat

Contact Danielle Petruzzelli at [email protected].