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The smell of food waste outside of the concourse permeates the air on a hot day. While it may be unpleasant to most students, that decomposing aroma is a sign of the evolution Principia College has undertaken to achieve its goal of becoming a zero-waste community.
Ecological alterations around the United States are coming together to push back the earth’s expiration date, and the Principia community is working hard to reduce their environmental footprint. A key part of accomplishing this goal involves the extensive composting strategy Principia has developed in the last few years.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 95 percent of the food we throw away ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. The EPA also reports that In 2013, there was more than 35 million tons of food waste in the United States, equating to more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.
Student Senate eco-head, Jason McEntire, emphasized the importance of this issue. “Most people don’t realize that food waste disposed of in the landfill not only takes up valuable space, but it releases methane gas,” he said.
Methane is a natural, but extremely flammable, gas that can form explosive mixtures with the air and can displace oxygen within an enclosed space, like a landfill. This creates a harmful gas concoction that, according to McEntire, is “roughly 70 percent more powerful than carbon dioxide in its contribution to climate change.”
By putting emphasis on creating a campus-wide composting system, Principia College is combating the negative ramifications of inserting compostable items in landfills.
All campus compost material is picked up weekly by St. Louis Composting, a company that specializes in large-scale industrial composting. The industrial composting process involves taking all of the food organics and other compostable material, such as hand towels and to-go containers, and giving it enough oxygen and pressure to turn it into healthy soil.
This process brings the food waste cycle full circle and is considered to be more effective than recycling. Students need not worry, though—the bins behind the concourse are not brewing a fatal methane combustion.
Principia has made significant strides in a relatively short time to be more eco-friendly. According to McEntire, “[Principia] has increased from around 35 percent to 65 percent [in] waste diversion in just the last few years.” McEntire added, “[But] to be zero-waste, we need to be at 90 percent.” This means 90 percent or more of Principia’s waste must stay out of landfills and be recycled or composted instead.
Different departments and facilities around the campus have all contributed to the increased percentage of waste diversion within the past year alone.
Pub manager Mary Odhiambo described the Pub’s recent mission to distribute food containers that are 100 percent compostable: “What the Pub gives [students] that is not compostable are chip bags, hot cup lids—which are recyclable—cling wrap if you get a brownie, and any condiment packages. Everything else is compostable, and we are doing whatever we can to add as much as possible to [the list of] things that are compostable.”
Overall, the Pub and Dining Services have an important role in campus waste management within the realm of composting. “Our [carbon] footprint is very minimal in the Pub and what we do throughout the kitchen,” Odhiambo added, “We are fairly close to being zero-waste at the Pub.” She continued to say that, “without even beginning to educate our employees during the early portion of the year, 11 percent of our waste was trash.”
The idea of composting has even extended into a few campus houses over the course of the last year. One of the most successfully eco-friendly houses and recent “RecycleMania” champions, Ferguson House, began implementing its own standardized composting system last fall.
“It was difficult to implement at first, to teach everyone what goes into the compost, but we have done a really good job since,” explained Ferguson ecohead Kevin Silcox. “All of the garbage bins we use [were bought by] Dan Schneider [Ferguson’s resident counselor] personally… That [was] a result of his personal will to help out the house and respond to students who wanted a change in the system.”
Silcox also stated that having house composting systems is something that every house can achieve if they put in a decent amount of effort. He said, “It is all about the willingness… and a consideration of the amount it costs to run it.”
While 65 percent waste diversion isn’t bad, there is still room for growth on Principia’s campus. Implementing composting systems in different facilities and houses are a definite step in the right direction in achieving the zero-waste goal Principia has set.
As for the decomposing smell behind the concourse, Odhiambo believes students can expect that to continue as Principia reduces its landfill waste. “I agree that at times it can definitely smell, but [students] should [be] considering what it is and what it is doing.”