Food waste at Wilkes has negative impact

Austin Loukas

Kirstin Cook, Editor-in-Chief

Christina Martinez takes a bite of mashed potatoes in the Wilkes cafeteria and decides they taste bad. So, she brings the almost untouched bowl to the conveyor belt and sends it away to the dish room.

“I throw out a lot, actually,” the freshman biology major said.

And Martinez isn’t the only one. Wilkes dining officials say the amount of food that comes back on the cafeteria conveyor belt destined for the landfill can be downright frightening.

“If you spend a few hours in the dish room, the sheer amount of food that comes back there sometimes is really scary,” Dining Services General Manager Ronald Williams said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that in 2010 more than 33 million tons of food waste was thrown away, accounting for almost 14 percent of all garbage.

The stream of food waste from Wilkes alone is impacting the environment by adding to swelling landfills, as well as the Wilkes budget because of high costs associated with this garbage. The issue is fed by a lack of awareness, leading to excess food being tossed.

Williams said the problem stems from the majority of students who fill their trays to the maximum but only eat a portion of the food.

“A lot of people take something from every station and then end up throwing maybe a third of it away,” Williams said.

He said a lot of people don’t think about how much they’re wasting, and he’d like to make them more aware.

Williams explained there are costs throughout the food cycle — from bringing in the food and preparing it to transporting the waste to the landfill – putting a price tag on every plate of disposed food.

Luzerne County recycling coordinator Beth DeNardi said this cost is the bottom line of reducing food waste.

“I think once you start diverting the food from the waste stream, you’ll see a drop in what it is you put out for garbage,” DeNardi said. “You’ll see a drop in the cost of it as well.”

Composting as a solution

DeNardi said there are useful outlets for food waste, such as composting the scraps to create nutritious soil or giving it to local farmers to feed livestock.

“You’re taking something you could use down the line, that doesn’t require a lot of work, and you’re paying to throw it away,” DeNardi said. “To me that doesn’t make sense.”

She called composting a win-win situation because it would generate benefits at the same time as reducing landfill that produces pollutants such as methane

DeNardi does not know of any area colleges that have a composting program. She said it’d be a great idea for all of them to start one. But she suggested preliminary feasibility studies to determine the effectiveness of the program. The first step would require the schools to determine a location for the project.

“Unfortunately a lot of the colleges in town don’t have that type of space to work with,” DeNardi said, though Environmental and Earth Sciences professor Jule McMonagle said Wilkes could partner with local municipalities and organizations for the project.

“It would require an investment of time on Wilkes’ part, but if at the end of the day they can reduce their overall costs as well as have some nice partnering activities, that might be very attractive,” McMonagle said.

DeNardi said the tangible benefits would be worth the effort.

“With a compost pile, you’re not going to pay as much for garbage, you’re doing something that’s educational, plus you could use the end product,” DeNardi said. “I don’t see anything bad about that.”

DeNardi stressed the most important part of reducing waste is education.

This is something McMonagle also stresses in class. She said a composting project would be a powerful tool in this education process.

Developing a partnership project would be time-consuming, but she said the rich fertilizer from compost, cost-effectiveness and positive press for Wilkes are just a few of the rewards.

“It would require an investment of time on Wilkes’ part, but if at the end of the day they can reduce their overall costs as well as have some nice partnering activities, that might be very attractive,” McMonagle said.

Simpler solutions

EEES professor Mark Kaster added that educating the public on food waste is a part of Wilkes’ role in the community.

“The university should be a leader in that area, because that’s all about educating the community,” Kaster said.

He said there seems to be a disconnect between today’s generations and the realization of how much work goes into producing food.

“Maybe that’s partial explanation why it’s so easy just to fill your plate up,” Kaster said. “You’re on a meal plan, so mound it, and eat half of it and the rest of it goes away.”

Kaster said the solution to cutting food waste in the Wilkes cafeteria is simple: Take only as much as you’re going to eat. But, he said, this requires consciousness toward sustainability.

“It’s a value thing,” Kaster said. “If you really care, or even care a little bit, you say ‘OK, I’ll only take what I want.’ You can always go back and get more. You don’t have to fill your plate massively.”

He said producing compost would have local benefits because the soil quality in this area is very low.

Williams said Dining Services tries to keep leftovers at a minimum by making food in small batches. He said they will give food to the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen in Wilkes-Barre when the cafeteria closes for breaks rather than letting it spoil.

Some schools are going tray-less to cut back on waste, he said, something the Wilkes cafeteria does on Earth Day to spread awareness. He said there’s the potential to eliminate trays completely, which he believes would be effective in decreasing waste. But he said this would have to be student-driven to be successful.

“It has to be student-driven almost, because at this point there’s too much push-back from faculty, staff and students,” Williams said. “If there was an initiative like that that was student-driven, it definitely wouldn’t get a fight from us.”

Despite the advantages of a compost program, Williams said there is the major downfall of the idea in who would take on the project. He said there would almost have to be an employee on staff strictly to maintain that program. In the meantime, he said other routes to bring awareness — such as tray-less initiatives and food donations — are a step in the right direction.

“Anything we can do to reduce the amount of food and garbage that’s taken off campus is a plus.”