Every week, a dozen off-campus Yalies are greeted by a biker hauling a capacious container on his back. Pizza delivery person? The library book enforcer? None of the above. The biker has come to collect these students’ organic waste, collected over the course of the week in 3.5-gallon bins. Destination: our soil.
The Compost Bin Project, erected under the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, partnered this semester with Peels & Wheels, a New Haven-based compost collection operation, to offer students subsidized weekly organics pickup. Our program’s mission is to expand composting services to students and sensitize the Yale community to composting as a key to a more sustainable future. While we have rescued over 700 pounds of organic waste from entering landfills in the first three months of operation, this project is only a first step. There is a tremendous need to rework materials management within Yale’s campus.
Our college-wide waste crisis has only been heightened by the global pandemic. It’s been made more evident to students by the switch to takeout-style plastic food packaging in residential college dining halls. We grab disposable utensils in a crunch for time at each meal and often neglect to clean out and return Yale Dining’s plastic hot-meal containers, lately made reusable. Sure, it might just be one set of utensils or just one container, but imagine how much that adds up to each day, per on-campus student. It’s far too easy to forget how much plastic waste surfaces daily globally, migrating across oceans and polluting our planet without end.
Yale’s waste problem only exacerbates Connecticut’s landfill crisis, which has exploded in recent years amid Connecticut’s overflowing of waste plants, with all five trash-burning plants having reached full capacity, and the state’s mass “foisting” of refuse to surrounding states. The crisis exacts considerable economic, environmental and financial costs, and contaminates low-income communities most vulnerable to pollution. Similarly, the lack of treatment facilities for compostable waste is an issue that extends beyond the borders of Connecticut. A survey conducted by the Institute of Local Self-Reliance on a handful of states identified a total of 3,453 yard trimmings composting sites in the U.S., which represents 70 percent of the total composting facilities reported. Only a total of 347 of them identified as food waste composting sites, although this count may be imprecise as most of them also receive yard trimmings; these data show the prevalence of yard waste composting sites, but also underscore the limited infrastructure available for food scraps and other non-food organics.
It’s important to note that taking focused sustainable action is impossible if the right systems aren’t in place. Connecticut’s negligence in addressing its waste crisis is made manifest by Yale’s limited degree of latitude as to where to send its materials. It hauls its organics to Quantum BioPower, the first energy combustion facility in Connecticut, which accepts food waste but only a small portion of the non-food organics it receives: No more than 10 percent of the organic, non-food waste they collect, such as napkins, paper cups, tea bags, aside from food scraps is used for energy and compost. The inconsistent signage of centralized bin systems on campus is baffling for sorting materials properly. We saw two different compost bins first semester: one that accepts food scraps and napkins and another that excludes napkins but includes tea bags. This semester the compost bin has been rebranded as a food scraps bin and doesn’t include any non-food organics.
So why is preventing organic materials from being tossed into the “trash” incredibly important? Simple. Organic waste, which not only includes food scraps but also items like soiled paper products, wooden toothpicks and even human hair and nail clippings, doesn’t decompose properly in landfills. This waste is forced to undergo anaerobic decomposition due to the absence of oxygen in such crowded environments. This process releases methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Heedlessly funneling organic waste into landfills is catastrophic for our planet and contributes to human-induced climate change. Reorienting ourselves to avoid tossing everything into landfills is imperative if we want to make progress in remedying our escalating waste problem. We must overhaul our waste habits. A radical but necessary first step is to ban “trash” from our vocabulary and reimagine what it means to us and our planet.
We adamantly believe that “waste” does not exist in the natural world. Composting is essentially recycling by nature. The recycling of plastics is fundamentally in conflict with the laws of the natural world; these nonbiodegradable, human-engineered products pose a threat to our marine ecosystems and degrade our environment. Composting yields an organic soil amendment rich in plant nutrients that can be used to bear more fruits of the natural world. One organism’s “trash” is food for another, with nutrients and energy flowing in nonlinear, closed-loop cycles of growth, decay, and rebirth. Food scraps and other organics can be reused by nature infinitely, but our improvident behavior balks this process, and human activity ceaselessly generates non-biological waste that undergoes a harmful decomposition process.
Though Connecticut plays a major role in what Yale can and cannot do when it comes to disposing of its “refuse,” we cannot forget to hold the University accountable. Yale has the leverage and resources to create its own composting treatment facility for capturing the streams of organics that are often sent to landfills. It would be futile to say that more would need to be done if most people think that what they throw out merely disappears: the only thing that belongs in the trash is our current catastrophic understanding of “waste.”
VERENICE TORRES is a second year in Silliman College, the incoming YSEC president and the head of The Compost Bin Project. JESSE ROY is a first year in Silliman College, a project lead for GREEN and a member of the Silliman Sustainability Taskforce. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.