If you have a meal plan at Fairfield University, you have probably noticed the numerous trash cans lined up by the exit of the Daniel and Grace Tully Dining Commons after each meal during the first week of the semester, and then the rotating compartments with piles of uneaten food stacked on plates after every meal thereafter.
Food waste is a huge problem in the United States and around the world. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Sustainable Management of Food” page on their website, “In 2015 alone, more than 39 million tons of food waste was generated, with only 5.3 percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting. EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash, constituting 22 percent of discarded municipal solid waste.”
So that leads to a question: what is Fairfield University doing about it?
In 2015, Fairfield announced the Fairfield’s Campus Sustainability Action Plan, a 35-page document that can be found on the school’s website under “About Fairfield,” and “Sustainability.” On page 18 of that plan, composting is listed as a future goal to enhance sustainability on campus.
The Mirror spoke to Duane Gornicki, general manager of dining services at Fairfield, to find out more about the processes at the Tully and other dining options for managing food and other types of waste. “It all starts with production,” he said. After food is delivered to the Tully, the “biggest contributor to a landfill, if you will,” referring to plastics and other non-compostable wastes, the staff uses “internal systems called D.R.I.V.E…where we first control how much we produce. So based on any given day, we take in factors like the menu mix to eliminate the potential of waste, so we don’t make extra food.”
Excess food that is never put out can be reworked into other foods because it was never uncovered or exposed to air. Once food is put out, it can only be out for a maximum of four hours before it needs to be covered and refrigerated again. “After four hours, something needs to be done with it,” said Gornicki. This food is unable to be served again “to paying customers,” but it goes to one of the programs to which Fairfield donates excess food such as Food Rescue or Prospect House in Bridgeport. Before this semester, excess food that couldn’t be donated ended up in a landfill, but now there’s a newer, environmentally-friendly system in place.
The food left on students’ plates and other food that can’t be donated now goes to compost. As of this semester, dining services are working with Blue Earth Compost, a company based in Hartford, Conn. that, quoting from their website, puts food waste to good use in soil or “compost at an anaerobic digestor that also creates renewable electricity from the process,” which is the process that Fairfield’s waste goes through. It’s in partnership with a company called Quantum BioPower, and the food is left to decompose in an enclosed space and produces methane, which when burned makes steam that drives a turbine that generates electricity for areas in Connecticut.
Around the kitchen, there are Blue Earth Compost bins stationed anywhere food might have to be thrown out. There are separate cans for trash, such as plastics, soiled napkins and other things that cannot be composted. On our walk, Gornicki leaned over and plucked a black plastic glove out of a compost bin. “If we put too much paper and plastics and stuff [in a bin], the company will reject it.”
As for minimizing damage to the environment in other ways, dining services, according to Gornicki, “try to source locally” and “limit deliveries by truck in order to reduce our carbon footprint.” When asked where the food comes from, Gornicki said that the coffee served both at the Tully and in catering services is roasted in Connecticut, and when they’re in season, apples and peaches come from local farms. They partner with Artheusa, a cheese maker in Bantam, Conn. where all of the cheese comes from. Most chicken and other animal products come from the Midwest.
“We try to keep it within at least a 500-mile radius of us,” said Gornicki. “The only thing that comes out of the country is…fruit like berries, blueberries, strawberries. In the middle of the winter here, there is no one growing these berries. We have to go out of the country–to South America–because our client base demands it.”
In the past few months alone, Sodexo and Fairfield University have made great strides in reducing and processing food waste. Blue Earth Compost picks up approximately “35 bins of compost from around campus twice a week, all with about 90 pounds of food inside.” However, “We won’t have numbers until the end of the semester,” said Gornicki, but at this rate, Fairfield University will have composted almost 100,000 pounds of food by the end of the semester. Before this year, all of that waste–food that is thrown in bins that couldn’t be reworked into other dishes or donated–would have gone to a landfill.
As for what students could do, there are ways that waste can be reduced before it has to be composted. “Especially incoming freshmen–they have this wonderful buffet… and that’s where the majority of food waste could happen because our resident students who are on the mandatory dining plans, they come up there and take more than what they can eat. We try to portion it on the line… and do programs like Wasteless Mondays, because education is what it’s really about. It’s going to Blue [Earth] Compost, to electricity…but the idea is to never have any waste to begin with.”
And when it comes to getting the message out for students to mind their portions and consider what they’re eating, where it’s coming from and where it will end up, “We don’t do such a good job with messaging about that. We’re limited about what we can distribute to students, but the University can. Students today want that. They don’t want to waste food.”