“It’s about creating a new kind of product,” said Recycling and Composting Coordinator Natalia Posthill. “Though there are a lot of benefits to keeping these things out of the landfill.”
Composting, which breaks down organic material aerobically, serves to turn food waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can be added to gardens.
At UNC, almost 650 tons of organic waste was composted in the 2013-14 fiscal year — including 281 tons from Lenoir and 258 tons from Rams Head Dining Hall, which together serve 8,600 meals per day. All Carolina Dining Services venues serve 20,000 meals per day total.
Food scraps are also composted from some of the other Carolina Dining Services locations, including Alpine Bagel Cafe, Wendy’s, the Beach Cafe and the Friday Center. UNC also has piloted a composting program now in six residence halls.
But it is clear there is room to improve. The 2013 Campus Sustainability Report said 38 percent of UNC’s trash by weight was compostable. Carolina Dining Services doesn’t measure pre- and post-consumer composting separately at the all-you-can-eat dining facilities, so it’s impossible to tell how much compost was edible food.
Director of Food and Vending Scott Meyers said Carolina Dining Services has no specific goals set for reducing the amount of food waste created in the dining halls every day.
“We basically shoot for continuous improvement,” he said.
Posthill said her office is taking things one step at a time, starting with pilot programs like residence hall composting and the two-year-old composting bins available for customers on the first floor of Lenoir.
“At this point it’s been kind of ‘expand where it fits,’” she said. “We’re happy that we’re diverting a lot of this food waste ... but the goal is to reduce the amount that we’re composting.”
Meyers said the average rate of wasted food in the dining halls is 0.6 pounds for every meal eaten, calculated by dividing the amount of food composted by the number of meals served. According to a 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council, an individual American throws out about a quarter of food and beverages purchased.
At the football team’s dining hall — which serves 300 meals per day — none of the food waste is composted.
Dean Ogan, owner of the catering company for UNC’s football team, said composting at the Training Table, the dining hall for football players, would need to be a collaborative effort initiated by Facilities Services.
“As soon as Facilities and everybody collaboratively agrees to get on a program like that, we certainly would participate,” he said.
Ogan said his company is able to minimize waste by anticipating exactly how many meals they will serve at every mealtime. He said there is a financial as well as an ethical incentive to reduce food waste.
“It is always a work in progress for us,” he said. “We’re always trying to reestablish what our pars are so that we don’t have any waste.”
Meyers said waste is inevitable in every food operation.
“When you’re trimming a pineapple or a cantaloupe ... you’re going to have waste,” he said.
He said Carolina Dining Services must balance fiscal soundness with being environmentally friendly, but the two priorities often overlap. He said dining hall employees are trained to optimize yield in meals and pay attention to popularity of foods.
“As good stewards, waste is really important to us,” Meyers said.
The University pays an industrial composting facility $80 per ton to pick up and process the organic material produced. Posthill said that price was similar to how much the University pays for trash collection.
In 2008, CDS eliminated trays from the all-you-can-eat dining operations as an effort to conserve water during a statewide drought. The move saved 100,000 gallons of water each week, but it also had the unexpected benefit of cutting food waste by 25 percent, said Mike Freeman, director of auxiliary services.
Meyers said UNC was the first big school in the country to go trayless.
“We try to lead the industry rather than follow it,” he said.
Some schools, such as Appalachian State University, use a pay-per-item system in their dining facilities rather than all-you-can-eat. ASU composted 93 tons across campus in 2013, primarily from the 15,000 meals served per day, said Food Services Specialist Heather Brandon.
ASU’s compost is processed on campus and used by its own landscape services, she said.
“We don’t have a huge amount of food waste,” Brandon said in an email. “Perhaps because we are a la carte, students generally are less likely to pay for food that they do not plan to eat.”
In 2011, North Carolina State University performed a waste audit to find out that 70 percent of the waste in one of their dining halls was food waste, said Sustainability and Nutrition Specialist Christopher Dunham. In 2013, the school composted 261 tons from its dining halls, which include three all-you-can-eat operations.
For many activists, combating food waste is about more than energy efficiency — it also is a tool for fighting hunger.
According to a 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council, just 15 percent of the food Americans waste could feed 25 million Americans.
Laura Toscano, director of the Campus Kitchens Project, said the problem of hunger should be addressed with the assets that are already in place.
“Right now in this country one in six Americans are at risk for hunger, and at the same time we’re wasting 40 percent of the food we produce,” she said. “This is a problem that can solve itself if we figure out how to put the pieces together in a different way.”
The Campus Kitchens Project helps students organize their university in coordination with community partners to use dining hall facilities to make meals for local people experiencing hunger. Toscano said she had been in contact with Carolina Dining Services, but no plans are in place for Campus Kitchens Project to come to UNC.
Freeman said 200 pounds of food each week is donated from the dining halls to the community kitchen of the Inter-Faith Council in Chapel Hill.
This month UNC will host Feeding the Five Thousand, an international movement designed to bring awareness about food waste by creating meals from food that would otherwise be wasted.
Feeding the Five Thousand Founder Tristram Stuart said wasting food in an American dining hall actually contributes to hunger on the other side of the world.
“Everyone is involved in the global food waste scandal,” he said. “You as an individual can help alleviate those problems, by taking only what you need and eating what you take. That’s a very easy action for an individual to adopt — hopefully a delicious solution as well.”
Stuart said students have power to reduce waste in the supply chain.
“They, as the ultimate consumer, have a responsibility to demand ... that food is produced in compliance with their own ethical standpoints,” he said.
Stuart said Carolina Dining Services’ donation policy is something to be proud of.
“If they have a donation policy, they are doing a lot better than a lot of other kitchens,” he said.
But he said composting a huge amount of food is not necessarily a good thing.
“Sending lots of food that could have been eaten to compost is of course not something to be proud of,” he said by email. “It could be they send 500 (tons) of food to compost; or it could be they send no food to compost, and only non-edible food waste. It’s likely to be somewhere in between ... It could be a sign of being more wasteful, or it could be a sign of being very good at diverting from landfill.”
He said a focus on composting should go hand-in-hand with policies aimed at reducing the amount of food that is wasted.
Stuart said if he were to set a goal for UNC it would be to the students.
“Why don’t we set ourselves a challenge to halve our food waste ... by taking just as much as we need?” he said.