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Care for the Earth

September 15, 2008

Care for the earth

It all started because of the health department. A year ago, when the University Center closed down for its remodel, Dining and Culinary Services had to find a new place to feed the majority of the university’s students. They moved to the Columbia Center. That space, however, could not accommodate a commercial dishwasher, so meals were served on paper plates to alleviate health department concerns. But what to do with all that paper? Contaminated paper can’t be recycled. You can, however, compost it. And with that, Dining and Culinary Services embarked on an ambitious composting program – sending the plates, napkins, food waste and other biodegradable materials to a composter. Now, more than a year later with a sparkling new U.C. feeding the university at full capacity, the composting program continues. Meals are no longer served on paper plates, but just about anything else that can be recycled or composted is being spared the landfill. By any measure, the program is hugely successful.

Wendy Robins, sustainability operations manager for Dining and Culinary Services, has overseen the changes in the U.C. She estimates that, at the end of the 2007-08 academic year, the U.C. reduced what it sends to the landfill by 70 percent. Or, put another way, the garbage-truck size trash compactor that sits on the U.C. loading dock used to be emptied once a week. Now, it is emptied about five times a year.

The re-opening of the U.C.’s dining area, called The Commons, allowed Director of Dining and Culinary Services Erin McGinnis ’90, Robins and other members of their staff to completely re-think just about every aspect of food service, right down to the drinking straws (now compostable paper, as opposed to plastic).

Called the Green Tray program, all food waste, from vegetable trimmings to the scraps left over from the grill, are scooped into five-gallon buckets discreetly placed throughout the kitchen and food-service line. The dishwashing procedure was also changed. Diners are now encouraged to leave their trash on their tray when they send it to the dishwasher. This enables the dishwashers, who are well-versed on what can and cannot be composted, to properly sort the contents of each tray.

In many ways, these efforts could be seen as relatively esoteric. But aside from the very real, earth-friendly benefits the program has, there is a financial component, too. In the 2006-07 academic year, the cost of emptying the compactor was $14,481. The following year, the cost was $4,200. Even when you add $4,757 to compost the rest, that still leaves a savings of $5,524.

There is an impact with students, too – when Robins talks about it, she could be forgiven for sounding like an admission counselor. “There are a lot of little reasons why students choose to come [to PLU]. The Green Tray program can be one of those – we can attract students who care about this,” said Robins. “Even here, [in Dining and Culinary Services] we can provide an opportunity for students to participate in their own education.”