EAC composting audit tallies college waste

Posted by Julia Leef

When you finish a meal at the Murray-Aikins Dining Hall, dishes go in the accumulator, napkins go in the trash and silverware goes in the tubs. This past week, students added an extra step to their post-meal routines, depositing all excess food into large, plastic tubs. The question is, why?

The Environmental Action Club Composting subcommittee along with Talia Arnow '13, Margot Reisner '14 and Sarah Arndt '14, student interns in the Environmental Studies Program, conducted a food waste audit program to determine if a compositing system would benefit the college. Part of that program was to collect pre and post-consumer waste in the dining hall from Feb. 27 to March 5. Students scraped their excess food into one of four bins in the accumulator area, which 50 student volunteers from the EAC monitored and then weighed. The results revealed that in one week, with a total weight of 6986.50 pounds, the college wastes about a half-ton per day in pre and post-consumer food, which could be used for composting.

"We really had no idea how much waste we were going to get," Arnow, said who is also the co-vice president of the EAC. "And we were so surprised that the numbers were so consistent."

Kate Brittenham '14 was one of the student volunteers who monitored the collection of food scraps in the dining hall. She said that while people told her the location of the bins was inconvenient, especially during "rush hour," overall the reception was warm.

"I thought it went really well and people's general attitude toward the audit and composting in general was really very positive," Brittenham said.

Going into the program, Arnow said the primary focus was to determine the quantity of food waste that could be turned into soil, and that awareness and behavioral changes in the students wasn't a thought at first. "We were simply wanting to collect data for what is the amount of food that we deal with that could go toward a composting program," she said. However, from the start of the program in the dining hall, students began asking questions and showing interest in the club's work. "I think it did promote conversation in the dining hall about food waste," Arnow said. "I think people were almost monitoring each other, and monitoring themselves more."

Riley Neugebauer, campus sustainability coordinator, helps bridges the gap between the students and the administration and acts as the on-campus supervisor for the three interns. According to Riley, Arnow came to her with the idea for a composting program this past semester. The two then met with William Coffey ‘10, who completed an Environmental Studies Capstone project with Nadine Dodge ‘10 that focused on the feasibility of a large-scale composting system at the college. They used the data from a food waste audit conducted in 2009 by Sarah Whateley ‘09 over a period of two days. Several faculty members also attended the meeting, including Karen Kellogg of ES Faculty, Kim Marsella, ES program coordinator and lecturer, Dan Rodecker, director of facilities, and Michael Hall, director of financial planning and budgeting. Neugebauer said she decided to hire interns to research the different aspects of this project, such as how much labor would be needed and what finances would be spent on it, as well as how much money could potentially be saved by using a composting system, whose tentative location is behind the college stables on Daniels Rd.

"We are obtaining additional data and talking with the key stakeholders on campus about what it might look like to start composting at Skidmore," she said, "which would take the dining hall food waste, the horse manure from the stables and grass clippings and leaves from Grounds, and turn it into a valuable soil amendment for our campus, including the student garden."

"We're trying to take the community's concerns into account, and write as much of that as we can into the report." Neugebauer said, adding that the committee spoke with the dining hall staff as well as the workers in the stables, both of whom will be affected by a composting system.

The next step for the committee is to write a recommendation using the data to explain why a composting program would benefit the college, which will be presented at the Academic Festival at the end of the semester. Arnow hopes the administration will realize the importance of composting and support the project.

Neugebauer said the committee would need to make a solid proposal to the capital budget for the next fiscal year, taking financial costs into account. She predicted the site preparation costs would be the largest, but with proper planning, the project will begin to pay for itself.

Composting will continue in the form of a Northwoods project, which was planned by the committee this past semester. In an all student volunteer-run event, EAC members delivered buckets this past weekend to the Northwoods apartments, where the student residents will designate their leftover food for composting instead of throwing it away. Arnow hopes this will prove to be a scale model of the future program, and she said participation is necessary to make the project a success.

Facilities helped construct and pay for the food compost bin, while the subcommittee obtained funding needed to buy the two gallon buckets for each apartment, as well as 10 gallon buckets students will empty their own buckets into. Student volunteers will then empty these 10 gallon buckets into the compost bin.

"It's a great partnership between the Sustainable Skidmore Office and EAC to help bring a student project to reality," Neugebauer said. The interns will gather participation data in Northwoods and the weight of the food obtained and its rate of decomposition in the bin.

Arnow thanks all of the people involved in the program, including the student volunteers, Riley Neugebauer, the student body and the dining hall staff, without whom nothing could have been done. Neugebauer expressed her pleasure in being able to work with students.

"I love it," she said. "It's part of the reason that I like this job so much. To do project-based learning and experiential learning and community organizing, those are things that are my favorite things to do, and with young people in particular." She also encourages the community to give her feedback concerning the composting program. She can be reached by e-mail at rneugeba@skidmore.edu.

"The larger goal here is to help highlight why composting is a good project for Skidmore College," Neugebauer said. "We generate this food waste which can then be not waste at all, but instead an input into something else.

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