|Dining Services Recycles Large Percentage of Leftovers Into Food for Campus Flora
March 08, 2011
By Emily Matras '12
When it comes to extravagant waste, America's food services sector leads the way. Less than three percent of the food service industry's waste gets reduced, reused, or recycled.
Davidson College's Dining Services, however, bucks that trend. Last year the college's main dining hall, Vail Commons, recycled and composted about 77 percent of its 94 tons of food and solid waste.
Davidson Sustainability Fellow Kristina Johnson '09 calculated this statistic by keeping track of Commons' composting efforts and using an online program to estimate how much trash is being put in Dumpsters and sent to the landfill. She said, "Commons used to have two Dumpsters that were picked up three times a week, but now there's only one Dumpster that's picked up twice a week." Johnson says that the college's relatively new composting system has made the biggest difference in waste output. In addition, the City of Charlotte's new acceptance of almost all plastics for recycling has significantly helped reduce waste in Davidson food services.
Johnson credits Dee Phillips, Director of Dining Services, with Commons' impressive diversion rate. "Dee Phillips has made this a priority in her department," said Johnson. "Diners just put their used food on the conveyor belt and don't think about it, but the waste is an important issue for Dining Services. By being more sensitive about it, Dee and her staff have been able to turn waste into a useful product."
Phillips, who has worked in food services for more than 30 years, said input from students piqued her interest in sustainability. "Davidson students have often come to me and made suggestions," she said. "They've helped me realize that we have to do better and be better. So back in 2007, I changed all our departmental goals and decided to do as much as we could to be more sustainable."
Commons now is a model of efficiency. There's not a single garbage disposal to be found in the kitchens. Instead, food scraps are placed in a trough filled with recycled water, and flow into a red collection barrel. Physical plant workers then pick up the barrel and mix it in a composting machine, along with yard and paper waste. The waste spends five to seven days tumbling in the machine before being moved to a "curing yard," where it matures for three to six months. The final result is an organic mulch that's spread over the base of trees and shrubs all over campus.
Dining services efforts to become a "scratch kitchen" also reduce packaging material waste. Phillips said, "We look at processed food and then figure out how to make it ourselves from scratch. We make a lot of our barbeque from scratch, and use leftover vegetable scraps, like the skins of onions or the cores of tomatoes, to make our own chicken broth."
Phillips and her staff pay attention even to minor details. Sugar is served in dispensers, rather than individual packets. Cardboard boxes are offered at the end of the school year to students who need to pack up a semester's worth of memories. Phillips and her department got rid of all desktop printers to help reduce paper waste. Dining Services tries to purchase food products that are manufactured in either North Carolina or South Carolina.
Johnson noted that composting and recycling programs are typically much more advanced on college and university campuses. "I think it has to do with the progressive ethic of the college campus," she said. "They're willing to spend money toward this type of thing. It's hard to tell students in the classroom ‘This is what you should be doing' when the school's not doing it."
Even among college campuses, though, Davidson's Dining Services ranks near the top. A recent survey of colleges and universities by the Sustainable Endowments Institute revealed that the average dining services' waste diversion rate is just 22 percent. Davidson placed in the top ten percent of those surveyed.
Phillips, however, recognizes that more can be done. In conjunction with Physical Plant, she hopes to expand the organic herb and vegetable garden in the front of Commons, but her main concern now is buying local. Phillips said, "The next step is meeting and talking with upper administration about the goals of the college and what ‘local' really means. We need to look at our carbon footprint and think about how far a product had to come to be delivered at our dock."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.