Sustainability concerns pile up amid packaged meal protocols

By Sophia McDermott-Hughes

To-go containers pile up in campus dumpsters, overwhelming the college’s landfill facility. (Van Barth)

This semester, the dining halls look very different. Instead of clattering metal cutlery and conveyor belts of dishes stacked waiting to be washed, students spent the first week back on campus stuffing compostable containers and leftovers into overflowing recycling bins outside. The bench outside Proctor, empty of the usual groups of students chatting and eating side by side, is now filled with stacked boxes, empty sandwich containers and soda cans. Now, a couple of weeks into the semester, students discard their trash in dumpsters outside of each of the dining halls, careful to avoid the bees and wasps flitting in and out of the accumulating waste.

As an institution, Middlebury prides itself on its sustainability efforts, pointing to its Energy2028 plan and divestment efforts, amongst other initiatives. However, during a global pandemic, sustainability has taken a backseat to employee and student health and safety. The college has had to make difficult decisions, such as sacrificing years of effort put into sustainable waste management. according to Eva Fillion, the sustainability communication and outreach coordinator for the Office of Sustainability Integration.

Following Middlebury and Vermont health guidelines, the dining halls have worked to eliminate the possibilities of surface transmission of Covid-19 between students and staff. Dining Services has replaced dishes, silverware and reusable to-go containers with compostable and recyclable single-use alternatives. In place of condiments, soda, cereal and milk dispensers, the dining halls now provide pre-packaged, single-serving alternatives.

Throughout Phase One, dining halls have relied on bottled beverages in place of drink dispensers to reduce the potential for Covid-19 transmission. (Van Barth)

The college is spending more than seven times as much on food packaging and flatware as in the past. In September alone, the cost was $60,141, as opposed to $8,361 for the same month last year. The college purchased 271,372 individually packaged foods for August and September, including 33,840 plastic water bottles and 37,000 ketchup packets. 

Under normal circumstances, all waste collected at Middlebury goes to the Material Recovery Facility (MRF). There, staff sort through it, often physically opening and hand-sorting bags intended for recycling or compost. Before students were sent home last spring, Middlebury was diverting 69% of waste from the landfill, largely due to the efforts at the MRF, according to Supervisor of Waste Management Kimberly Bickham.

However, the MRF staff can no longer open bags of waste, which could contain tissues or other material possibly carrying the virus. Instead, they now only examine bags from the outside, throwing away anything that does not appear properly sorted. Bickham estimates that the diversion rate has now fallen below 30%. 

“My staff works really hard to keep the diversion rate high, and we really pride ourselves on that,” said Bickham. “It breaks my heart to be throwing stuff away. I absolutely hate it.”

Compostable containers are arriving at Middlebury’s composting facility in such large quantities that they cannot all be composted. The containers require longer periods and higher temperatures to biodegrade and are designed for commercial composting facilities, not smaller-scale operations like Middlebury’s.

During normal years, Bickham said that the ratio of compostable containers to food scraps almost never exceeds 30% — a percentage that still allows for the decomposition of the tougher material. She estimates that it is now 70% and said MRF staff now must throw out bags filled with the containers, composting only those filled mostly with food scraps.

Compostable containers, beverage lids and flatware struggle to biodegrade in the college’s compost. (Sophia McDermott-Hughes)

No one has communicated the new waste policies to students, many of whom were under the mistaken impression that they should compost their food containers, according to Will Anderson ’20.5 who also works as a kitchen staff helper in Proctor. 

A shortage of staff and supplies poses challenges to an effective waste collection setup. Compost bins cannot be left unattended overnight because animals could get to them. However, facilities — already short-staffed and working additional hours — does not have the manpower to place and replace compost bins around the campus every day, according to Fillion. Instead, she encourages students to bring their food waste back to their residence halls, each of which has a compost bin.

Non-compostable contaminants litter the compost site, without the staff to sort through the material, it continues accumulating. (Sophia McDermott-Hughes)

Demand for the compostable containers and flatware exceeds the available supply as Middlebury and other institutions seek them out as sustainable alternatives, according to Dan Detora, executive director of food service operations. Middlebury’s primary purveyor, Reinhart Foodservice, has repeatedly run out of the college’s preferred compostable packaging, forcing them to purchase less sustainable alternatives at times, according to Ross Commons Chef Chris Laframboise, who played a major role in designing how the dining halls would operate under Covid-19 guidelines. 

Facilities, Dining, the MRF and the Office of Sustainability Integration have faced logistical challenges when trying to resolve some of the waste management issues. Each department plays a role in waste management and has already taken on additional responsibilities and undergone a reshuffling of roles around health management, making coordination difficult, according to Fillion.

With the state of the pandemic constantly shifting, no one knew exactly what the new semester would look like and what new challenges would arise prior to students’ arrival, making planning almost impossible. Instead, most of the waste management efforts have been reactionary, according to Fillion.

“Everyone is stretched so thin and reacting so quickly to things that we haven’t had as much of a chance as we’d like to really sit down and examine the best ways to reduce waste through dining,” Fillion said. 

Waste bins outside of Proctor Dining Hall overflow with to-go containers and other dining waste. (Benjy Renton)

While the college will continue to prioritize health and safety above sustainability, Dining Services  is looking to reduce waste as restrictions ease in Phase Two, which begins today, Sept. 17. They will replace the compostable food containers with reusable ones and the individually packaged soda and gatorade with a dispenser. Still, state guidelines limit what the college can do. Vermont still prohibits restaurants and food service locations from having high-touch services, such as condiment dispensers or self-operated drink dispensers, according to Detora.

“Middlebury does an amazing job prioritizing sustainability and the environment during a typical semester,” said Fillion. “This semester is not typical, and, when the rubber hits the road, health and safety has to come first.”