Food disposal under review

Refuse and food waste composting practices at Yale may do more harm than good to the environment.

Six times a week since March 2010, Yale Dining drives its organic waste from dining halls to New Milford Farms, a composting facility about an hour and forty-five minutes away from Yale’s campus in New Milford, Conn. Although Yale recycles its food materials, the greenhouse gases released by the trucks that transport them pollute the atmosphere and contribute to climate change, Yale’s Waste Management and Recycling Manager Bob Ferretti said.

“We’re interested in a more local solution,” Ferretti said, adding that the situation was not ideal. “[The current program] is not sustainable for economic or environmental reasons.”

The Office of Sustainability, Yale Facilities, and Yale Dining, which collaborate to enable campus composting, are currently reviewing the program by conducting a study to evaluate its continued environmental and financial sustainability.

“The powers that be” Ferretti said, will determine whether it stays in place.

As the system currently operates, a dining employee gathers mealtime waste from all the dining halls and drives it out to New Milford three to six times a week. Bruce Hillier, General Manager of New Milford Farms, estimated that Yale composts between 12 and 42 tons of material a week. In the same period of time, the plant processes between 150 and 200 tons of organic waste from grocery stores, restaurants, universities, and public school systems, he said.

Once the organic material arrives, the farm mixes it with woodchips or wood fiber and then monitors it at a constant temperature for 30-40 days, Hillier said. By the end of this period, the material will be broken down enough to turn into soils for resale on the private market. The buyers are varied: nurseries, garden centers, rooftop planters in New York City, and even a new hospital on Martha’s Vinyard all use the compost, Hillier said.

But the success of the composting venture relies on more than a simple cost-benefit analysis. Even the weather changes the process — especially when unusually low temperatures freeze what needs to be transported.

“Right now we are dealing with frozen food waste outside,” Ferretti said. “Nothing is perfect right away.”

Ferretti emphasized that composting represents only a secondary solution to problem of university-wide large-scale food waste. Ideally, he said, Yale wants to reduce the amount of food waste overall.

This is a solution that the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership (STEP), has been pursuing through student education, Jimmy Murphy ’13, co-director of the STEP program, said. Audits conducted by STEP last spring in residential college dining halls showed that trayless diners (about two in five) produced, on average, half as much waste as diners using trays, he said.

Before the current program with New Milford Farms, Yale Dining discarded their waste as municipal solid waste, Ferretti said.

“I think a lot of it went down the drain,” Ferretti said. “There were issues with food and oil and organic material in waste water.”

To Murphy’s knowledge, fines from the city of New Haven forced the university into the current composting system, he said.

“They had been fining [Yale] for a while for organic waste in the sewage but they were going to make [the fines] worse,” said Murphy. “[The current program] is a stop-gap process. No one is happy with that.”

New Milford Farms, established in 1991, was the first state-permitted composting facility in Connecticut.

Comments

  • locnessy81

    This is an interesting take on a complex problem. Yale is certainly not composting because it has to, and it’s certainly not composting from pressure of state or city fines. It’s composting because it wants to, because it has a commitment to Sustainability through it’s new Strategic Plan, and because students want composting as well! Why throw food away when it can be turned into something so productive?

    Obviously carting tons of food to New Milford it’s a long-term sustainable solution, but we have to measure the food waste before we can determine how to handle it. The current practice is a short-term solution until we get the long-term composting scheme figured out. I’m thrilled there are so many interested and knowledgeable parties involved in making this a smooth process, that is of course long-term, and sustainable.