Eat Better, Clean Better: Tackling Composting At Pitzer, Pomona

(Alexa Strabuk • The Student Life)

Up to 40 percent of food in the United States and one-third of food globally is wasted, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). That's nearly $1 trillion lost every year to inefficiencies and neglect in the food system.

When food is wasted, we throw money away. With the prevalence of malnutrition, poverty, and hunger both internationally and close to home, we must question how we could possibly be wasting so much food so often.

The institutionalization of our food system, including agro-business farming practices, government corn and soy subsidies, and countless other mechanisms, has allowed countries like the United States to produce a bounty of food beyond what its people need. Restaurants, cafés, and large-scale food service entities—like dining halls—are some of the greatest producers of food waste.

This waste can be split into two major categories. From the kitchen, or back of the house, comes food waste like fruit peels, vegetable scraps, eggshells, meat scraps, and other parts of the ingredients that won’t be served. Second, there is food waste from consumers—food that isn’t eaten, as well as food that is prepared, put out for serving, touched by people, but not eaten. The latter is known as post-consumer food waste, and is the main source of waste in dining halls.

While the ultimate remedy to food waste involves changing the industrialized food system to reduce how much food is made, along with when and what food is discarded, students can still take steps to mitigate the food waste that we do contribute.

For example, six of our dining halls and many smaller eateries on the campuses such as the Shakedown and Grove House at Pitzer compost food waste in some way. Pomona College also participates in a composting system operated by the Pomona College Organic Farm.

The farm receives most of its food scraps from Frary Dining Hall, with some also coming from Frank Dining Hall. These food scraps come mostly from the back of the house, but the farm also accepts post-consumer food waste. The scraps are taken from the dining halls in a cart to the composting area at the farm by student farm employees.

The farm uses a thermophilic compost system (also known as hot composting) where piles containing layers of food scraps and leaves are made, according to Farm Director Aaron Cyr-Mutty PO ‘16. These piles are turned using a tractor, which the farm owns for exclusively for turning compost on a weekly to monthly basis.

Ten to 100 pounds of food scraps are composted by the farm every day. Even still, a majority of the post-consumer food waste that could be composted doesn’t end up in the piles. Cyr-Mutty said that the trash that ends up in compost bins hinders their efficiency and stops a lot of compostable food scraps from getting to them.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the things Pomona buys that are compostable are not compostable for us,” he said. “And so it’s kind of a little bit of an empty gesture, like the compostable spoons, compostable cups, compostable plastic, those need to go into municipal or industrial size compost.”

If more students were aware of what could and could not go into compost bins, more food could be composted and fewer hours could be spent sorting through the trash. By using compostable cups and cutlery, Pomona puts forward an image of sustainability, but if those things aren’t getting composted, they are just as wasteful as normal plastics.

Compost at Pitzer is exclusively student-run through Pitzer’s Garden Club. According to Gabe Elliott PZ ‘18, the club's member in charge of compost, they compost pre-consumer scraps from McConnell Dining Hall, the Grove House, and the Shakedown, as well as compost from individual students. The food scraps then go through a similar journey to Pomona’s composting system.

Both Pomona's and Pitzer’s composting systems are limited by space, but due to the size of the Pitzer garden, Garden Club is not able to compost all of the food scraps they receive. Huerta del Valle, a community garden in Ontario that Pitzer partners with, takes and composts the food scraps that Garden Club is not able to process.

While Pitzer’s Garden Club used to compost post-consumer food scraps, it has encountered problems in the last few years.

“It became too difficult to manage the post-consumer waste due to the trash, silverware and other harmful materials that made up a significant percentage of the collection bins," Elliott wrote in an email. "Plastics, metals and other miscellaneous objects don't break down even under significant heat and the amount of trash was impossible to filter out adequately.”

The problem of lazy and uninformed sorting of food waste is not only present at Pomona and Pitzer, but across all compost efforts. To Elliott, greater awareness of what can and cannot be composted is the key to more food waste getting composted and less ending up in landfills.

“It takes a maximum of 15 seconds to separate uneaten food into a compost bin,” he wrote. “And once the routine is established, it becomes a mindless habit that adds up over time.” Some may think that a small bit of food does not matter, but ultimately, a little more effort on everyone’s part can save countless food from ending up in the landfill.

“Even at a highly sustainable, progressive school, there is a willful ignorance about where our food is grown, harvested (or slaughtered), the conditions it is processed in,” Elliot wrote. “This emotional disconnect between the steak on our plate and the cow it came from makes it easy to disregard the importance of minimizing and disposing of food waste properly."

Before we can tackle systemic problems of food production and food waste, we need to put in the effort and be intentional about how much food waste we produce and how we dispose of it.