Too Good to Waste: Composting Efforts on Campus

FEAST Garden's warm compost area at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental

Sustainability Coordinator Jenny Low, along with several student workers and volunteers, is expanding composting efforts on campus one bin at a time. Their most recent initiative is navigating student habits and finding new placements for compost bins on campus, such as in the Cooler.

There are currently eight buildings on campus with composting bins: the Marketplace, the Green Bean, the Academic Commons, the Johnson Student Center (JSC) and Johnson Hall. Of these buildings, only the Marketplace is managed by campus dining staff — the rest are students’ responsibility.

Composting first expanded beyond the Marketplace and Green Bean when Low and a group of student volunteers, including Isabella McShane (junior), Ellie Amann (junior) and Sofia Swanson (sophomore), began a pilot program that added compost bins to the Academic Commons, JSC and Johnson Hall in Fall 2016, according to Elizabeth Richman (junior). Richman previously worked as the assistant to Low and now acts as a volunteer for one of the most recent composting projects in the Cooler, which started last semester.

Reserve hay at Occidental College’s FEAST Garden in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental

According to Low, McShane was instrumental in bringing composting to more buildings on campus. McShane worked with Low to set up the bins, helped with the initial waste audits that assessed the bins’ contamination levels and provided information about student composting habits. Low said that since last year, both student volunteers and employees have been working behind the scenes to continually improve and promote the use of the bins.

“When I first did the trash audit, we found ridiculous things being thrown into the garbage and recycling, like shoes,” McShane said via email.

According to McShane, the pilot program was important because it introduced compositing education to students.

“If people already don’t properly recycle things, it would not have been the wisest decision to just throw compost bins around campus and expect people to know what to do. It takes time for people to get used to the idea of composting and knowing what goes in a compost bin,” McShane said.

At the beginning of the Spring 2018 semester, Richman and Amann added a compost bin to the Cooler. According to Richman, the bins in the JSC, Academic Commons and Johnson Hall are used consistently; however, Low had concerns about placing one in the Cooler. Low said she was concerned about managing the bin given the large amount of student traffic and waste.

FEAST Garden’s cold compost corner at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental

“I’d say [the biggest obstacle] is the location. It’s the only one inside. The one outside is not going super well right now because it’s by a wall that is very gritty and paper doesn’t stick well to it so whenever we put up a sign it falls down after a week, so we need a permanent sign which will take time,” Richman said.

Raising student awareness also poses the challenge of processing a great quantity of compost, Low said. She added that once the students start using the bins routinely, there is a possibility of transferring responsibility from them over to Cooler staff but that would require further tasks and training.

Currently, six student volunteers manage the Cooler project. Each volunteer covers one day of the week, except for Saturday. Aside from removing the waste, the volunteers meet together to discuss approaches for increasing compost accessibility to students.

The compost bins in the JSC and Johnson are used regularly. Due to the high quantity of compost thrown out in the library, Low added more bins this semester so there would be one available to students working on each floor. The bins in the library are organized into a waste station near the stairway entrance to each floor. Each bin has a sign delineating what can be put thrown into it.

The library bins used to be a volunteer position but are now the responsibility of student compost assistants hired by Facilities. Richman said that since there were not always enough volunteers, it became a paid position in 2017 to ensure that a student was always responsible for the bins. The position is paid by a grant from the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Renewable Energy & Sustainability Fund. Students can apply for the position with Facilities and are assigned responsibility for the collecting, sorting and disposing of compost in Johnson, the JSC and the Academic Commons.

Low said that the compost assistants go through the compost and perform audits. This involves sorting through each bin to make sure that all items inside are compostable and assessing the level of contamination. According to Low, contamination is the biggest challenge for composting efforts because of the extra time it takes to sort through it.

Health, Safety and Sustainability Manager for the Green Bean, Huijing Huang (senior), said that the Green Bean promotes composting by stocking compostable cups and utensils. She also trains employees in how to correctly dispose of waste and said that the business works to raise customer awareness through signs and categorized waste bins.

FEAST Garden’s warm compost area at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental

“I definitely notice that people don’t read the signs we [in the Green Bean] provided and they don’t understand something being compostable from being biodegradable. Sometimes people think that because something is compostable it is biodegradable and they can throw it anywhere,” Huang said.

Items that are compostable can be considered biodegradable but not all biodegradable items are compostable. According to Green Paper Products, a supplier of Ecotainer cups that are used in the Cooler, biodegradable items break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass over time. To be compostable, an item must be biodegradable, provide nutrient value to the soil and release no toxic residue.

One way that the Green Bean promotes composting is through their partnership with the Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST), Huang said. On Wednesdays, FEAST collects the old coffee grounds from the Green Bean to use in their garden as fertilizer.

Richman says that expanding composting to more academic buildings and dormitories is possible but would require more student initiative.

“The main problem is sheer manpower. It is pretty much all student-run, and we only have so many students and so much free time,” Richman said.

Most recently, Stella Ramos* (first year) began a composting project in her residence hall, Braun Hall. Low said that the recent addition of this project has been successful because of the enthusiastic participation from residents. She said that composting efforts need to adapt to the location and that students’ actions are different in residence halls compared to public buildings.

“It varies depending on location and behavior. For the halls, it’s different because of the mindset. For the library, the minimum of convenience and access was good enough. That wasn’t good enough for the Cooler so now we have to come up with ways to engage users and help them know where it is. It’s a work in progress,” Low said.

*Stella Ramos is a staff writer for the Occidental.