Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Fighting the Eco-Battle in BC Dining Halls

Not only do we live in a world battling an environmental crisis, but we also live on a campus. This crisis is being fought on many fronts at Boston College, perhaps none so fiercely as in the dining halls. Food waste is a big problem in these spaces, and preventing it is a team effort. The effort starts with the BC Dining Staff behind the scenes.

Molly Funk, MCAS ’22, is a BC Dining Intern who is exceptionally aware of the staff’s effort to reduce waste. “A system called Lean Path,” Molly explains, “is a technology where you’re able to take food waste from different areas of the dining hall, and measure it…to see how much we are wasting from every station.”

The areas of the dining hall (i.e. salad bar, bagel bar, pasta station) with the most waste are given less food. Through this system, the amount of waste is reduced.

Ann Marie Green, MCAS ’20, is writing her senior thesis on recycling. She reports that since the program was initiated in 2013, dining halls have “reduced food waste by 62%.” Along with Lean Path, BC Dining utilizes single-stream recycling, composting, and a program called Every Bite Counts, which donates excess food to different nonprofits. But then the burden moves to the students.

Ann Marie says that despite the immense efforts of BC Dining, the onus “mostly falls to the students.” One major responsibility they have is to sort trash correctly. This is a simple task that often goes ignored. The potentially disastrous student self-sorting process is mitigated in Lower Dining Hall by the aptly named “Magic Wall.”

According to Ann Marie, Lower has “the best divergent rate” due to the dining hall staff’s meticulous sorting process which takes place behind the “magic” revolving wall of trash. The diversion rate in Lower, which refers to the amount of trash that gets recycled or composted instead of incinerated, is 40%. At McElroy it is only 19%. Dining halls without this feature create more waste due to high “contamination” rates in the trash receptacles; a problem largely propagated by student complacency. After the trash is sorted by students––or staff––it is sent to a waste hauler.

Save that Stuff, BC’s waste hauler, determines whether a load is too contaminated to be composted or recycled. If the former is true, they will send it to the incinerator; releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. BC students have the power to ensure that more trash is recycled and composted, and all it takes is a moment longer at the sorting stations. 

Not to fear, though, for even if a sorting error or malfunction occurs, there is still a chance that the load will be repurposed. The contamination threshold allows for waste to be composted or recycled even when tainted––to a certain extent. 

“If you look in and see a lot of contamination,” Molly says, “It’s still salvageable.” The processing facility can take up to 10% contamination for plastic and even more for compost, so students shouldn’t be dissuaded or become discouraged if they see a polluted bin. There is still hope. 

Although recycling is valuable, the more sustainable choice is to not use plastic at all. As Ann Marie puts it, “Recycling isn’t the answer, it’s reuse and reduce.” She implores BC students to choose reusable plates and cutlery when possible.

Every week in McElroy Dining Hall, there are 87 reusable bowls stolen. This is not sustainable. It prevents more bowls from being offered, and causes non-reusable bowls to be relied upon. For this reason, it is beneficial to eat food in the dining hall. Not only are students more likely to return silverware and eating containers, but they can also compost any leftover food. Despite efforts from groups like Real Food to put compost bins in dorms, there is very little composting that occurs outside of dining halls. The resounding message is clear…good things happen when students eat in the dining hall.

Composting is a real game-changer for sustainability, but recycling, unfortunately, is not. Raw plastics are just as cheap for manufacturers to make as recycled plastics, cheaper even, so there is no financial benefit to recycling them. Even the utensils that are marketed as made from “recycled plastic,” are not an environmentally conscious choice. The best decision seems to be to stop using plastic items altogether.

Although plastic is not the ideal material, the emphasis on the dangers of plastic straws has been blown way out of proportion. If someone ditches a straw but not a plastic cup, they are not making an ecologically mindful decision. In fact, the new strawless lids at Starbucks are actually worse for the environment than their straw-bearing counterparts. To make a noticeable difference, one cannot simply abandon plastic straws…instead, this would require leaving the plastic cup as well. Ann Marie reminds BC students that if they “are looking to do the right thing environmentally, don’t rely on recycling.”

There are other sustainable actions in which students can engage. First: using the brown burrito bowls at dining halls, which are 100% compostable. Second: using the new Green2Go containers, which allow students to eat outside the dining hall while reducing plastic and paper waste. Third: recycling pizza boxes and tin cans from residence halls. It is essential to keep in mind that when recycling pizza boxes, the food waste must be removed. If it isn’t, then contamination will render the box non-recyclable.

Going to the dining hall is an activity common for every BC student, but so is contributing to waste. Students have more agency to alleviate waste on BC’s campus than they might believe. They can make an impact, and recycling and composting do happen on campus. “If students believe that everything is just going into the trash,” Molly says, “they will care even less.” Don’t care even less…care even more, and trust the sorting process.

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Alex is a features writer for the Gavel.