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From pizza crusts to apple cores, students explore PSU’s food waste

In the United States, food waste, such as kitchen scraps and leftovers, makes up the majority of the waste that ends up in landfills each year. Recent waste audits at PSU show that between 25 to 45 percent of the University’s landfill-bound waste, by weight, is compostable food scraps. This percentage can go up to as high as 52 percent when compostable to-go containers or cups are included. Food waste takes up space in landfills and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

During fall quarter, the Sustainability Leadership Center’s Food Systems Task Force decided to focus our efforts on exploring PSU’s food waste stream. We set out to see how food waste is managed on campus. Here's what we found out:

  • In Victor’s dining hall, food scraps from the kitchen and from student meals are composted. Victor’s also offers meals in reusable to-go boxes.
  • Eating establishments in the Viking Food Court in Smith compost kitchen food scraps, and a compost station is available in the seating area in Smith for students to deposit food waste. Reusable to-go boxes are also available in the Viking Food Court.
  • Groups hosting events on campus can request to have a compost bin delivered to collect food waste through Conferences and Events.
  • Departments can request permanent compost bins for their offices from the Campus Sustainability Office. As of this fall, office compost bins in most buildings at PSU are emptied by campus custodial services.
  • If your department or office bin isn't emptied by custodial services, there are also several drop off locations on campus.

We also explored how independent restaurants and cafes around the PSU campus handle food waste, since much of the waste at these establishments is generated by PSU students. In addition, food scraps and food packaging from take-out items often end up in PSU’s garbage bins. We conducted informal site visits to over twenty eating establishments around campus and found that while about half of these eating establishments compost their kitchen food scraps, less than a quarter have a compost container out front for customers.

The eating establishments that do have front-of-the-house composting systems have faced challenges with compostable waste being contaminated with non-compostable items. While good signage, including pictures of compostable items, helps prevent contamination, some of these businesses have found the best approach is collecting all waste items in bus tubs and making restaurant staff responsible for sorting compostable from non-compostable waste. This strategy increases staffing costs, but saves the businesses money on garbage fees.

Another challenge is that some food packaging items that claim to be compostable don’t actually biodegrade in local composting facilities. Metro is currently reevaluating their list of regionally approved items—businesses should watch for that list and purchase regionally approved compostable items.

When the Food Systems Task Force started exploring food waste at PSU, we were fired up to make compost containers on every corner of campus a reality. While this vision still holds promise and could ultimately provide an economic benefit to the University, there is work to do before such a program could be implemented successfully. Community members need to be educated about proper compost disposal, and more research needs to be done on materials that can be truly considered biodegradable.

As members of the PSU community, there are plenty of opportunities to reduce our impact through our individual daily actions. Here are some ways you can take action:

  • encourage composting at your home and workplace,
  • use reusable containers and utensils when you eat on the go, and
  • support businesses that provide clearly labeled compost collection for customers.

Tanya is the food systems coordinator for PSU's Sustainability Leadership Center and an MBA student interested in using her business expertise to promote the economic viability of local farms and regional food systems.