Despite the University’s recent environmental initiatives, activists are pushing the dining halls to correct a common misconception among students: the belief that compostable cups are fully sustainable.
Many Yalies do not realize that some of their waste is difficult — some even impossible — for facilities to process. In 2017, Yale began to divert its food scraps to Quantum Biopower, a zero-waste facility that converts food remains into renewable energy and soil. Still, several students told the News that this may not be enough. Branford College’s sustainability liaison Rachel Chang ’22 said that students assume they are making an environmentally-friendly choice when they use compostable cups. But they do not realize that these items can still produce impurities when Quantum processes them, Chang explained. In addition, students may think nothing of inadvertently tossing a fork into the dining hall compost bin, but this simple action could temporarily shut down Quantum’s plant entirely.
“We have pumps and mixers and motors in this facility,” Brian Paganini, Quantum Biopower’s vice president and managing director, said. “One knife fouls those mixers quite readily and those pumps very easily, so imagine a load of 100 knives coming in and getting dumped into your system, or a load of 30 bowls coming in from a food waste stream.”
Through anaerobic digestion — using living microorganisms to ferment food waste into fuel, the plant produces enough energy to power its own machinery. In 2016, the University touted its switch to the Quantum Biopower plant as a way to cut costs and lessen the environmental impact of transporting waste.
Paganini identified two categories of non-food waste: incidental contamination and manufactured products. The plant can process products that fall into the former category — which consists of napkins, paper cups and tea bags — but these items can reduce the purity of the resulting soil. Incidental contamination is responsible for five to seven percent of the food waste shipments the plant receives from Yale and the plant’s other customers.
It’s the latter — the manufactured products, including metal utensils and ceramic dishes — that have a far more detrimental effect on the plant. Quantum uses manpower, equipment and technological innovations to separate out these harmful contaminants. But despite its best efforts, the plant sometimes cannot remove all of these items, temporarily shutting down the plant’s operations and putting Quantum at risk of violating government standards on contamination limits.
According to Lindsay Crum, Sustainability Metrics & Program Manager at Yale’s Office of Sustainability, the Office of Sustainability is aware of and is working with its partners to address the issue of contaminants in the compost.
“There is a real level of complexity to waste management within our university, as the landscape of composting best practices across the country is changing very quickly — we completely understand the concern and are working with our partners across campus to address it systematically and properly,” Crum wrote in an email to The News.
Crum wrote that the Office of Sustainability does not promote putting compostable ware into the food waste bins. But she explained that changing the signage as well as the system of composting on campus requires collaboration between multiple departments — specifically Facilities and Yale Hospitality.
But for activists like Chang, even this upgrade would be insufficient. She said that ideally, Yale would provide multiple bins for different categories of waste, which only some dining halls do currently.
In prior years, Yale has caused problems for Quantum by shipping to it a “tremendous” amount of ceramic and metal products, Paganini said. After conversations with representatives from the plant, the University made efforts to purify its deliveries.
“Yale’s been one of our partners for four years and Yale has done a good job in some cases and not so good of a job at bringing clean, separated materials,” Paganini said.
Still, some of Yale’s sustainability liaisons — student workers employed by the Office of Sustainability — say the University has fallen short of its sustainability goals, putting the plant at risk for surpassing the maximum amount of non-food waste it can accept.
Chang took issue with dining hall signs directing students to mix food waste with paper products. Aligning with Quantum’s push for educating producers of food waste, she said the University should alert its students that even though Yale states its cups and compostable dishware are compostable, they can still lead to impurities in the soil Quantum produces.
“It just feels like a way that Yale can green-wash,” Chang said, noting that if students knew that the compostable cups could impurify the soil, they might decrease their use of these items.
Chang suggested Yale introduce other waste-bins to the dining halls and post new signs to accurately reflect the most sustainable practices.
At the liaison’s October meeting, Gavrielle Welbel ’22, Murray’s liaison, requested that the office ask its graphic designer to create new signs. The University has not posted updated signage in many of its dining halls, though Crum said the Office has created signs that reflect Quantum’s specifications — specifically that they cannot process too many compostable items.
Still, unawareness that napkins and cups should be separated from food waste and thrown away becomes especially problematic, Chang said, when breakdowns in normal function force dining halls to resort to solely compostable items for entire meals at a time.
While Yale can contribute to the creation of impure waste, it is not alone in its occasional failures to purify compost. Paganini said Yale is one of many customers who send waste to the plant and can contribute to imperfect soil quality. As such, he attributed the issue to a larger societal disregard for food waste, much of which goes into the country’s overused landfills. According to Paganini, Yale is “a leader in [the] endeavor” to recover food waste from the garbage stream, but these efforts are still in their initial stages. He said people need to be educated about how to deal with the food waste that is funneled into the garbage stream.
The plant educates Yale and its other customers on how to deliver the purest waste possible. Though the plant can process paper products, the waste it accepts will find its way to the soil on which Connecticut’s farmers and growers work. Ideally, the compost will be purely food scraps.
The plant sets a threshold that 10 percent of the waste it receives can be non-food waste. If it exceeds this threshold, Quantum has to alert Connecticut’s regulatory authority and assess the source of the high levels of contamination.
The University is currently creating a plan to become carbon-neutral by 2050.
Rose Horowitch | firstname.lastname@example.org