OPINION: Pomona should pull its weight in municipal organic recycling

A student holds up some soil while composting in a garden on campus.
Pomona has a responsibility to compost as a solution to dealing with the worldwide issue of food waste. (Olivia Shrager • The Student Life)

Perhaps you’ve wondered where that sad, lonely lump of “vegan beef tips” goes once you dump it in the compost or watch it disappear to the other side of the dish drop off. 

Most of Pomona College’s food waste goes into the municipal organic recycling program run by the City of Claremont. Organic recycling is commingled, meaning green waste (yard waste) and food waste (of all kinds) are processed together. This program was started in 2016 in compliance with a 2015 California mandate under AB 1826, which required commercial organic recycling throughout the state. 

In 2019, Claremont’s commercial food waste was measured at about 317 tons. According to Pomona’s Assistant Director of Sustainability Alexis Reyes, of these 317 tons, approximately 150 tons were produced by the 5Cs, and of those, around 76 tons were produced by Pomona College. 

This amounts to Pomona being responsible for roughly a quarter of commercial food waste in Claremont as a whole. As a well-funded and prominent institution, we have a responsibility to remove some of the pressure from the municipality in dealing with food waste. 

The current method of composting in Claremont is highly inefficient, and Pomona has a role to play in bettering this system. Claremont drives our compost 21 miles to a collection facility owned by Athens Services (an organic recycling company with whom the city has a contract) in the City of Industry. From there, Athens drives tons (literally) of compost 77 miles to their processing facility in Victorville, which is in San Bernardino county on the other side of Angeles National Forest. 

This amounts to food and green waste being driven 98 miles from source to processing — a gross use of emissions which undermines the environmental benefits of composting. 

Perhaps at this point you are wondering about those bins in dining halls marked “Food Only.” The contents of these receptacles (general food waste), as well as food scraps (different from food waste, in that food scraps exclude meat, dairy or eggs, and consist only of fruit and vegetable bits like carrot skins or the end of an onion), are composted at the College’s Organic Farm. However, composting on the Farm is a manual process which cannot possibly process the quantity of all the food waste coming out of our dining halls on a daily basis. 

One solution would be for Pomona to purchase an aerobic digester (think of this as a composting super-machine). Environmental analysis major Aurora Massari PO ’22 is working on a thesis in which she will complete a cost-benefit analysis of purchasing a digester. 

From speaking with Massari, a few major obstacles are clear. For one, the digester is quite expensive; as of a few years ago, an aerobic digester would cost $250,000. Second, the digester processes greenware (so-called “compostable” flatware and other plastic products) so slowly it really shouldn’t be called green — according to Massari, a “green” fork run through the digester every week for nine months is still recognizably a fork. 

The issue of how to source flatware which will effectively break down in an aerobic digester is a major challenge in Massari’s analysis. Possible solutions to the greenware issue include bamboo utensils, wooden utensils or an expansion of the reusable utensil system. 

Benefits of the digester are numerous, but the aforementioned barriers are by no means insurmountable. The digester can process 5,000 pounds of compost per week, and ideally could process waste from not just Pomona, but the rest of the 5Cs and all of Claremont as well. 

Undoubtedly, it is important to contextualize this issue in the face of an ongoing pandemic. Though composting has perhaps fallen on your mental list of important things, waste has dramatically increased during the pandemic — you can see it in the dining halls — and now is arguably a more important time to be working on decreasing food waste than ever. As a major contributor to Claremont’s food waste footprint, Pomona must become a more active participant in the processing of that waste. 

Willa Frank PO ’25 is from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She enjoys petting every dog ever on Marston Quad and professing her love for New England to no one in particular. 

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