Majors lead sustainability initiative

Volunteer staffers sit near the Retreat waste bins that they have gathered together. They hope to increase composting on campus by educating students about composting. Photo By: Emily Lavieri-Scull
Volunteer staffers sit near the Retreat waste bins that they have gathered together. They hope to increase composting on campus by educating students about composting. Photo By: Emily Lavieri-Scull
Volunteer staffers sit near the Retreat waste bins that they have gathered together. They hope to increase composting on campus by educating students about composting. Photo By: Emily Lavieri-Scull

Most meals at the Retreat are characterized by a last minute frantic dilemma of which bin to put your waste in, followed by a quick dumping of everything into just one bin.

When a bag of compost is delivered to the composting companies it is examined to ensure that everything in the bag is compostable, because just one item that isn’t causes the entire bag to be thrown in the trash. Despite having designated bins for compostable items spread throughout the Retreat, the Office of Sustainability has been finding that nearly all of the bags of compost being produced by the Retreat are unable to be composted for reasons of contamination.

To counteract this, Sustainability has been working with students to help educate them about what is and is not compostable. In addition to a composting night at the ACDC last week, two weeks ago Sustainability took all of the trash, recycling and compost bins in the Retreat and the College Center and put them in one place which was overseen by a student whose job was to speak and interact with anyone who needed to throw out their trash. One of the students staffing this area was Saskia Comess ‘17, the Office of Sustainability’s waste intern.

“The goal of the event was to raise awareness regarding how to properly sort compost, trash and recycle so that we can start composting in the Retreat again,” said Comess.

Comess and her fellow students, many of whom were members of the Environmental Studies senior seminar, took turns staffing the station set up around the conglomeration of waste receptacles. During their shifts they made themselves ready to assist students who needed help determining what to recycle and what not to recycle.

“The Retreat sells food in a variety of packaging types and thus knowing what is and isn’t compostable is sometimes confusing. Of course composting is optional; however we would prefer that students who don’t want to sort their waste just throw it all in the garbage rather than ruin an entire batch of compost,” said Comess, who helped organize and staff the station.

According to the Office of Sustainability’s statistics, the campus generates over 700 pounds of food waste and other compostables every single day, much of which is often placed into the wrong containers.

The staffers at the event told students which Retreat packages were compostable, which were recyclable and which needed to be trashed. Comess believes that educating other students on what they can and can’t compost or recycle is important for Vassar to maintain a healthy environmental presence.

“Since Vassar produces so much waste in general, it seems like we should do as much as possible to make sure everything that we can compost is composted,” Comess stated.

Going hand in hand with Sustainability’s event at the Retreat, members of the Environmental Studies seminar took it upon themselves to organize a night at the ACDC where they stood by the exits and asked all students to place their napkins and other compostables into trash bins. This event was originally the brainchild of Evie Toland ‘15, a member of the seminar like all of her fellow Environmental Studies majors.

“It was a way to actively include Vassar students in our study so they’re more aware of how much food they waste,” said Toland of why she decided to organize the event. “Also, I was genuinely interested in how much food students waste at the DC because I didn’t think we had data on that.”

Similarly to the Retreat event, the members of the seminar all signed up for different time slots to be at the ACDC staffing the event and encouraging students to dispose of their compost in the proper bin. By Toland’s count, the event was a success.

“As students we were able to talk to other students about why we’re studying food waste and make visible how much Vassar wastes in a buffet style dining hall,” Toland said.

Sarah Yanuck ‘15 is another member of the majors’ seminar who also serves as the Environmental Studies’ Department Intern. Yanuck also felt that the event was a great way to help increase environmental awareness on campus.

“The food at the Deece is always composted as long as it’s not contaminated by wrappers and other things,” said Yanuck. “This was an opportunity for us to show people how much waste we actually produce and to weigh it.”

At the end of the night, the members of the class took all the waste that they had collected in the trash bins during the meal and bagged it to be weighed. Although they haven’t yet received the final tally for how much weight was actually collected, Yanuck believes that they will get it soon and distribute it to students.

“This event wasn’t aimed to try and reduce food waste or make a long term huge change at the DC,” Toland said, looking back on the event. “It was more to have students realize how much they throw away by physically having to remove it themselves.”

In addition to their efforts at the ACDC, the members of the seminar also took it upon themselves to create the new signs that can be seen on and around the waste bins in the Retreat. According to Yanuck, the signs are a way to help students identify which bin they should place their waste in. Many of the Retreat’s containers and cutlery are compostable, but there are some that are not, and that has caused a great deal of confusion among students..

“It was really interesting because we were trying to figure out what was and wasn’t compostable and recyclable,” Yanuck recalled. “We ended up calling some of the companies to ask [which of their products were compostable]. I think it says a lot if we Environmental Studies majors had to resort to that to find out what was compostable.”

The signs, which are already planned to be updated and improved, detail which bin it is acceptable for a given package or waste to go in. The Retreat has made a shift in recent years to use more and more compostable utensils and dishware, and Comess feels that not taking advantage of this is a waste in and of itself.

“Providing compostable utensils, cups, and dishware represnts a significant monetary investment for the Retreat,” said Comess. “It is also representative of how ambitious the composting program is at Vassar; many institutions limit composting to just food waste, while we are also trying to make packaging compostable. However, when the compost bins are contaminated with non-compostable items, it all ends up in the trash and the advantages of such an ambitious program are diminished.”

Now that the signs are up, other methods of increasing awareness are being considered. Yanuck stated that her class is hoping to improve the bulletin board in the Retreat. They hope to use it as a space to post information not only on composting but also on Vassar’s ‘waste stream’—the route that the waste coming out of Vassar takes.

Most of Vassar’s waste eventually ends up in an incinerator, which carries its own problems towards the environment. Most incinerators are in poorer and more marginalized areas where their noxious emissions don’t affect those who produce the majority of the garbage. But it can seriously affect those who live nearby.

“We want to help students realize that when we produce waste it does affect other people, and not always in the same way,” Yanuck said of the incinerators.

Yanuck and Toland agreed that the decrease of waste on campus is a gradual process that won’t be completed right away, and maybe not for a long time, but they have already seen encouraging results coming out of the events.

“It’s definitely an ongoing project,” said Yanuck. “And so far the people at Sustainability have been doing a great job.”

“It’s doubtful that this one event will change their habits – but you never know. We did have one student come to the enviro department interested in majoring because she liked what we were doing so just reaching one person is successful in my mind,” Toland said.

Likewise, Comess reported that the event in the Retreat has gone a long way to helping students be more conscious about their waste.

“[Vassar’s composting companies] have seen a huge improvement in compost contamination levels since our event in the Retreat,” said Comess. “That compost is now usable as compost and does not have to go in the garbage.”

Though specific events in the future have yet to be planned by Sustainability or the members of the seminar, they are all pleased and encouraged by the reception of the campus towards these first two events.

“The fact that these initial efforts resulted in such a reduction in contamination indicates that it is important to continue this educational work,” Comess said.

Comess eventually hopes to see the continuing improvement of campus waste disposal.

“My goal is to have continuous composting in the Retreat, without having to halt composting due to excessive contamination.”


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