UNL makes efforts toward diverting compostable items from landfills

Story, Video, Infographic by Julia Nguyen, NewsNetNebraska

College campuses are beginning to see the realities of having eyes bigger than one’s stomach. A closer look in the trash bins at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Cather, Pound and Neihardt dining hall during lunch hours revealed startling amounts of half-eaten sandwiches, salvageable apples and heaps of pasta.

“A lot of the time, people point at dining services as the problem, but students need to recognize how much food they’re taking and wasting,” Pam Edwards, assistant director of the dining services at UNL, said. “It’s certainly a double pronged topic.”

According to RecyclingWorks, a recycling assistance program based in Massachusetts, the average college student wastes about 142 pounds of food per year.

The switch to trayless

Having recognized the excessive amounts of food students were wasting, in 2009 UNL dining services implemented a trayless system. The halls eliminated the use of trays and now utilize plates instead.

“Plates are a self limiter,” Edwards said. “We have seen less [food] waste because students are not taking as much food that they used to on trays.”

The UNL dining services also adopted a batch cooking method in coordination with the trayless system. With batch cooking, the dining staff cooks the food in small batches as needed throughout the meal period.

“Batch cooking or cook-to-order, limits the potential for excess food on the kitchen staff’s end” Edwards said.

Since the switch, several dining halls across campus are still seeing the benefits of using plates instead of trays, including CPN.

“There’s been a significant decrease in the amount of food waste produced,” said Joel Fogerty, food service manager at CPN dining hall.

Fogerty talked about the challenges that comes with being mindful of wasting food in a buffet-style setting that can be seen across all UNL dining halls.

“The idea behind the buffet is that we want the food to look good for the first person that comes through as it is for the last person,” Fogerty said. “In regards to food waste, it’s tough but we do the best we can to avoid overproducing.”

The sources of food waste

Like Edwards, Fogerty also addressed the two main sources of food waste: the dining staff and the students.

“The one thing that bothers me the most is when you see students loading their plates onto the dish conveyor and there’s still untouched food on their plate,” Fogerty said. “What these students need to understand is that a little goes a long way and that they can always come back in line for more.”

While the trayless system has seen positive implications, it is still not enough. A UNL study conducted in the Spring of 2015 showed that the dining halls produced 1.5 tons of organic waste per day and about 80 percent of the waste produced on City Campus was organic– organic being defined as food scraps, paper and other compostable materials.

Student activism

Coming face to face with these harsh truths has prompted student environmentalists to initiate change on campus. Ben Rice and Lauren Klassmeyer, members of the UNL Environmental Sustainability Committee, recognized the potential for UNL to improve upon its food waste management by introducing the concept of composting within the dining halls.

“Myself and other students were passionate about composting,” Rice said. “[We] wanted to see UNL set an example for other universities.”

Rice has grown up on his family farm, Prairieland Dairy, in Firth, NE where he now works as the waste solutions manager. Since 2002, Prairieland Dairy has been composting dairy waste and selling it to local farmers and gardeners.

“Having Ben and his experience with composting as a member on our team, we definitely have the means to bring composting to fruition,” Klassmeyer said.

Rice and Klassmeyer, along with other ESC members, proposed an initiative to the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, the UNL student governing body, in late 2015 that would explore food waste diversion and composting on the UNL campus.

“The proposal is part of an overall plan to make the University of Nebraska-Lincoln a zero-waste campus,” Klassmeyer said.

“Initially we are setting up an infrastructure to divert and collect food waste,” Rice said. “Once this is established, a large educational movement will have to take place for students and faculty to solve the overarching problem of throwing away our food.”

The push for composting eventually trickled down to the Environmental Leadership Program, the subcommittee under ESC. ELP consists of a group of freshmen and sophomores who collaborate and advocate for sustainability. Since the proposal, ESC and ELP members have been working tirelessly with the UNL dining services to explore composting options, gather information pertaining to composting and discussing the feasibility of implementing a compost within the dining halls.

The future of food wastage on campus

Environmentalists and leading public figures have argued that food waste is one piece of a larger, complex puzzle involving issues like world hunger and climate change. While these issues may serve as defeating obstacles for some, others like Rice and Klassmeyer are hopeful that empowering a community like UNL will eventually catapult into something great.

“I believe the university is the perfect place to start influencing the next generation of consumers and start resolving some of the biggest issues our world is facing,” Rice said. “The vision is there, I just hope UNL recognizes the impact they have in the lives of students and gets behind this solution to a world problem.”

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