Putting waste to work

Apart from the incoming students, St. Olaf’s first-year dorms welcomed another new addition this past fall. Composting bins now occupy every first-year corridor and dorm room.

This change was the initiative of alumnus Taryn Arbeiter ’12, who began composting while living in an honor house. Enthusiastic about her results and eager to turn composting into a campus-wide endeavor, Arbeiter met with representatives of St. Olaf’s Environmental Coalition EC to discuss her idea.

The EC reps – Lauren Kramer ’13, Rachel Pain ’13, Roz Anderson ’13 and Andrew Kaul ’13 – were inspired by Arbeiter to create Oles Composting, an EC subcommittee focused on implementing the process of composting into daily campus life.

Seeing an opportunity to establish good habits early in students’ careers at St. Olaf, the subcommittee chose the first-year dorms as the locations for the composters and began the process of implementing the Green Cone composting system.

“Green Cones, which are partially inserted into the ground, use solar energy to decompose pre-consumer and post-consumer food waste,” Kramer said. “This [waste] includes produce, prepared foods, meats and dairy products.”

Although every floor has a large compost receptacle, each dorm room is also allotted its own Caf-supplied yogurt container in which students are meant to throw all of their compostable waste. Once full, the yogurt containers are emptied first into the floor receptacle and subsequently into a Green Cone where the solar-powered composting process occurs.

The subcommittee’s hard work has brought in a total of $3,150 in funding for this project, with $500 coming from a temporary Social Innovation Grant and $2,650 from SGA Senate funding. Oles Composting used the funds to buy several Green Cones, planted outside of the dorms, and a number of indoor composting receptacles. Notably, the Green Cones would never have been planted without support from the St. Olaf community.

“Residence life has been very supportive throughout this process,” Kramer said.

EC is understandably enthusiastic about the numerous benefits incurred through composting, namely the ability to turn food waste into soil rather than allowing it to pile up exponentially in landfills. By integrating this process into campus life, EC hopes to help develop a more environmentally-conscious student body.

This brings us to the challenge faced by EC as well as SustainAbilities, a group working on educating students about composting: the sheer amount of food waste on campus from both Stav Hall and the residence halls. In order to reach the eventual goal of placing composting bins and Green Cones all around campus, the amount of food waste must begin to decrease to a workable amount; specifically, Oles Composting would like to see a 30 percent reduction in food waste.

Due to the large amount of food waste coming from the cafeteria, the campus’ main composting bins are exceeding their maximum capacity and are therefore unable to process additional food coming from the dorms. This is due in part to improper use of the dorm composting receptacles – another issue EC hopes to address with their campaign.

Lacey Etzkorn ’15 is leading an initiative to help with food waste reduction. The Clean Plate Campaign, a program Etzkorn hopes to implement this semester with the help of Real Food St. Olaf and EC, hopes to reduce food waste in the cafeteria. The campaign will begin by alerting students to the waste created by uneaten food.

“We are going to have students sign clean plate pledges and provide a number of incentives for keeping their food waste down,” said Etzkorn. “We would like the students to simply be aware of how much they waste and realize that wasting all of this food is resulting in spending cuts in the cafeteria. Students are wasting their own money.”

Etzkorn also hopes that students will be open-minded about possible solutions such as going trayless.

“If we can significantly reduce the food waste on campus, dorms will be able to compost again. If we fail to do this, composting will be a lost cause,” Etzkorn said.

Annie Stewart ’15, a junior counselor in Ellingson Hall, echoed EC’s cautious optimism about the endeavor.

“There are people who are really into it, and then there are people who just don’t care. There’s really no gray area,” Stewart said. “At the beginning of the year, we told people what should go into [the bins], but a lot of people throw in whole pieces of food like sandwiches and uneaten fruit … when they’re not meant for that.”

However, Stewart hopes that with proper training and increased awareness among the student body, composting can have a successful and lasting role on the campus.

In addition to educating students about the proper use of composting bins, SustainAbilities representatives have personally emptied the large compost receptacles into the Green Cones and hope to train new workers to take on this responsibility.

“The SustainAbilities representatives have played an invaluable role in making the program a success and will continue to provide guidance and feedback to the compost student workers throughout the year,” Kramer said. “I believe the SustainAbilities representatives [also] plan to focus on food waste education this spring in conjunction with EC’s Clean Plate Campaign.”

Next year, EC hopes to change the current composting system in order to match what they have found to be the needs of the campus.

“We’re going to dig up the cones and move them to the honor houses,” Kramer said. “Green Cones are really meant for the use of a single house, not a residence hall.”

The group has realized that purchasing industrial composters could be crucial in order to accommodate dorm and Stav Hall food waste. However, if Etzkorn’s campaign is a success, students should become more aware of what they are eating and how much they throw away. In theory, this would make such large composters unnecessary.

With some students, the composting campaign has already made an impact.

“People would go on breaks and say that it’s weird not to be able to compost,” Anderson said.

When it comes down to it, the driving force behind the composting campaign is its ability to make St. Olaf community members more aware of their actions.