Every other Tuesday evening during the the fall semester, students will find themselves handing their dinner plates to peers and watching as any unconsumed food is scraped from the plate and into a plastic bucket. Generally relegated to the room hidden behind the dish deposit conveyor belts, the new, more visible waste separation effort is part of a data collection and waste reduction project by student-led organization, “Weigh the Waste.”
Cailey Cron ’13.5 and Molly Shane ’13.5 started Weigh the Waste as an offshoot of their MiddChallenge project, “Share the Surplus,” which aimed to lessen food insecurity in Addison County by recovering excess unserved food from the College dining halls and diverting it to community organizations such as the weekly Community Supper.
In considering pre-consumer food waste, however, Cron and Shane realized that focusing on post-consumer waste is an equally important element of food waste.
“We started thinking, how do we make waste visible and once waste is visible, does that encourage people to reduce the amount of waste they’re producing?” Shane said. “And so our focus shifted from this pre-consumer food that would have been coming out of the kitchen, to the post-consumer level of this food chain, looking at the food that’s left on students’ plates.”
The College has reported that 300 tons of food waste is produced annually, but the specific contents of the waste are unknown.
“Our goal is to find out more specifically how much edible waste students are responsible for,” Cron said. “Because that’s the number that, with enough awareness and enough visibility, we feel like we can change.”
Biweekly food waste collections will allow for the compilation of data on both edible and non-edible food waste from Proctor and Ross dining halls to figure out how accurate the 300 tons of food waste is and to gather more specific statistics on food waste trends.
“That’s our first goal — to get a better sense of what this 300 tons actually is,” Shane said. “And then our second goal is visibility. We think that when you have these kids scraping plates, people are going to see it, people are going to start thinking about it, people are going to be talking about it. And I think that through that, behavior may already begin to change.”
The first Weigh the Waste collection was held on Sept. 18, and produced 139.75 pounds of edible food waste in Proctor and 160.25 pounds of edible waste in Ross. The project will continue on a biweekly basis throughout the semester.
While the College currently composts food waste and food prep scraps, and many students understand composting edible food waste to be environmentally-friendly practice, Director of Dining Services Matthew Biette said that too much compost can still be a bad thing.
While Weigh the Waste provides a means of gathering data and exposing waste collection to students, Biette called for an effort to reduce waste that begins at the serving station.
“We would like for people to be as engaged in the eating process as they are in the classrooms,” he said.
Currently, Weigh the Waste remains a means of collecting data and increasing visibility, but Biette added that it also has the potential to highlight issues of community responsibility on campus.
“[What if you] could you control your cost, and every other person could control their costs so that they’re doing the quote-unquote, right thing, … [so] that it actually reduces the cost of what it takes to go here?” Biette said. “And that’s not just food. That’s whether someone is vandalizing trees, that’s whether someone is keeping their window open in the winter, that’s whether is taking plates … Whatever that is, we as a community can help to control that. It’s not about finger-pointing. It’s just understanding that we, as a group, have power.”
Cron and Shane see similar potential benefits of waste reduction, noting collaboration with members of other on-campus food organizations, such as “Eat Real,” as a means of achieving shared goals.
Shane listed potential environmental, economic and community benefits which could be achieved through the reduction of edible food waste.
“There’s so much potential for increased freedom within the dining budget if we’re not spending our money on food that we’re not eating,” Shane said.
Natalie Valentin ’15, a member of the Commons Sustainability Coordinator’s (CSCs) food focus group and local food marketing assistant to Biette, has been functioning as a go-between for Weigh the Waste and student-led food organizations on campus that may be working to achieve similar goals.
“As [Biette] and I were discussing efforts to increase local foods on campus, and to foster a more conscious food culture on campus more generally, we repeatedly discussed the issue of food waste,” Valentin said. “An essential part of a conscious campus food culture is how we as students approach the food that we eat. Tackling food waste will not only save money, but will help develop a … respect for the food systems that feed us.”
While the Weigh the Waste project is still in its earliest stages, students and staff members alike have lauded its efforts.
The Sept. 18 food waste collection was conducted by members of the men’s hockey team, coordinated by the team sustainability representatives and Director of Athletics Erin Quinn.
George Ordway ’15 said that Biette approached the hockey team about participating in the weighing of food waste.
“He had mentioned that it was an idea [dining services] had been discussing for a while, but they weren’t sure how to go about it,” Ordway said, noting that he thought food waste collection by students was far more effective than if it had been done by dining staff members.
Biette echoed Ordway,
“When students do this for students, it’s peer to peer, and that’s far more powerful,” he said.
Respecting the regular operations of Dining Services, as well as those of the College, has been integral to the development and planning of Weigh the Waste efforts.
“Something that Molly and I worked on a lot over the summer is not assuming that we know what the problem is, but rather getting guidance from people who know a lot more than us,” Cron said. “We’ve talked to Dining [Services] about things that students can do to make their jobs easier or something that they see happening that we can change.”
Dining Services staff members, too, noted the impact of Weigh the Waste collections, expressing their gratitude to Cron and Shane for revealing to students what it is that they do behind the walls of the dish room and allowing them to be acknowledged for their hard work.
“We have no grand notions of how a food waste project will make all Middlebury students respect all Middlebury staff members,” Cron said. “But I think it’s an opportunity for people to build relationships and develop and appreciate those working behind the scenes.”