The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Compostable dining materials rendered useless without proper disposal methods on campus

5 min read

Katora Cafe distributes compostable dining materials when students order from the cafe. Emily Warren | The Weekly Ringer


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Despite some of the efforts UMW has made to become more sustainable, such as switching to compostable dining hall packaging and silverware, the university has not had the monetary means to properly dispose of the waste created by this packaging. Therefore, UMW should receive additional state funding in order to be able to effectively implement its sustainability initiatives.

Having compostable materials and not the proper ways to compost them is like separating trash and recyclable materials just to dispose of them in the same dumpster. Just as recyclable materials need to be separated out from regular trash in order to be correctly processed, compostable materials need to be divided out from other forms of non-compostable waste. If this separation process does not happen, the university’s use of compostable materials for the sake of sustainability is rendered obsolete. 

The university is listed among the most environmentally-conscious colleges in the “The Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges,” and the state should match that prestigious achievement by helping fund ongoing sustainability efforts so that UMW can continue to receive this accreditation and positive national attention. 

According to Melanie Szulczewski, an associate professor of environmental science and founding member and co-chair of the President’s Council on Sustainability, these materials need to be separated from normal trash in order to actually be sustainable. Having worked with this council on implementing campus composting and other sustainability efforts for almost 15 years, Szulczewski is familiar with the financial and bureaucratic challenges of promoting sustainability on campus.

“Compostable silverware and plates are a great idea in theory, but if you’re putting them into the regular garbage, it’s probably not worth the extra expense, and it is misleading to say you’re using compostable materials if you’re not composting them,” said Szulczewski. “If you are going to invest in having compostable silverware and plates, it’s really important to take the extra step to send them to a composting facility.” 

Currently, the university is in the process of implementing multiple sustainability initiatives across campus. One program is Sodexo’s Better Tomorrow 2025 plan, which is a “corporate social responsibility roadmap that ensures our actions contribute to a better future for our employees, customers and the communities we are part of and the world around us,” according to David Schneider, the General Manager of University Dining. Since Sodexo is our campus’s food service provider, UMW is part of their plan to do better for the planet; however, the university’s individual attempts at sustainability need to be fully met in order to properly represent this mission.  

Alan Griffith, a biology professor who has done sustainability research projects in the Fredericksburg community, said, “When you compost things, they decompose very differently than when you put them into a landfill. When you take compostable materials and you put them into a landfill, that gets covered up by other trash.” 

The piling of trash aids in the production of harmful greenhouse gases, according to Griffith. “Decomposition still happens, but decomposition happening in an anaerobic environment–a non-oxygen environment–produces a lot of methane,” he said. Griffith mentioned that if the state were to get financially involved, it could help kickstart sustainability practices at UMW, which would make us part of the solution to the climate crisis.

According to UMW’s 2020-2021 University Budget Plan, the university has suffered financial losses, leading to budget cuts. For example, from the 2019-2020 academic year to the 2020-2021 academic year, UMW cut its dining budget by 5%, or almost $460,000

The university has been forced to make budget cuts in many sectors in order to maintain good financial standing, so we cannot expect the university to be able to properly compost dining material without further help from the state.

With a budget insufficient in funds to provide proper disposal of compostable materials, such as compost collection bins on campus, these materials end up being thrown away along with other trash. This leads to landfills filling up with even more materials that are intended to remedy the sheer amount of trash we create. This was especially an issue when the university began the semester with only grab-and-go dining.

Callie Jordan, a junior political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major, can attest to the sheer amount of trash created by campus dining. 

“Boxes were stuffed and piled into trash cans around the UC,” she said. “When it got too overfilled, students placed them in the hallway.”

According to Planet Aid, the average college student produces approximately 640 pounds of trash per year, which is generated from the abundance of single-use products provided by schools at dining locations and campus events. 

If UMW had the financial resources to correctly dispose of compostable dining materials, it would not only mitigate the creation of so much waste, but it would also help the environment. 

The university creates a substantial amount of waste, especially with grab-and-go dining, and the accumulation of waste in landfills comes with a price.

“Landfills are filling up,” said Griffith. “It is expensive to take land and put it aside to put things into it.” Why should our school contribute even more trash to landfills that are already reaching their capacity? If the state provided the school with funds to support a composting initiative, then the school could fulfill its promise of being a sustainable institution.

Although the university is taking part in initiatives to reduce the use of single-use plastics on campus, they need more money for their dining sector in order to be able to successfully carry out these practices. Even with faculty members attempting to implement these beneficial practices on campus, there will not be progress without sufficient funds.

On Jan. 24, the university reopened in-person dining at all campus dining locations, which somewhat eliminates the use of single-use dining materials, since the dining hall has returned to using flatware and china; however, some places like Katora and Panera still provide these disposable materials. Therefore, even though the materials are less distributed, the need to dispose of them properly still stands.

Furthermore, we are living in an extremely unpredictable college environment where the appearance of a new COVID-19 variant or another supply change shortage could force dining locations to revert back to grab-and-go dining, which would mean a return to using compostable dining materials again.