Joanna Moon/Sun Graphics Designer

April 15, 2021

Composting at Cornell: C+

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How often do you take out the trash? I was shocked to see a full trash bag by my door almost every other day for the past seven months at my six-person Collegetown house. Throughout many of those months, I lamented as I threw away carrot tops, apple cores and slimy spinach into the trash bag instead of a compost bin. At home, my mom has tended to a compost heap for as long as I can remember, so I’ve grown up with the luxury of a small trash can and a thriving garden. But without a backyard and someone to turn over the compost, it takes a lot more effort to compost food scraps and anything marked “compostable” than I’m used to.

My distaste of my personal waste led me to look into the sustainability of on-campus eateries. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly every eatery at Cornell has turned to takeout and throw-away containers. The International Solid Waste Association estimates the consumption of single-use plastics in America may have grown 250 to 300 percent since the start of the pandemic. 

I have been pleasantly surprised, but hard-pressed, to find any items on campus marked with the recycle symbol or with “compostable” stamped on the bottom. Even when something indicates it can be placed somewhere other than the trash, there are certain guidelines. Tompkins County does single stream recycling, which has very clear guidelines on its website about which items they accept. They also collect food scraps at various “Drop Spots” around Ithaca for processing by Cayuga Compost. Many plastic containers which are marked compostable are made of corn starch, but are still plastic-based and cannot break down. Most Cornell students and Ithaca residents do not know the rules and may not stop to think before tossing an empty takeout box in the trash.
This problem of plastic waste existed long before the pandemic, but this public health crisis has made Cornell Dining’s sustainability proposals all the more difficult to implement. The dining halls had the reusable green plastic containers, but that program could not be extended to cafés because they don’t have the facilities to wash and return them. 

So, what can be done to balance the need for “germ-free” single-use containers with Cornell’s efforts towards a more sustainable campus? In COMM 3210: Communication and the Environment, we were assigned a group project to propose a more sustainable solution to a problem within the Cornell community. My group decided to explore the possibility of implementing universally compostable containers in Cornell’s dining facilities. In our preliminary research, we spoke with officials from all across campus and within Ithaca. We learned that the roadblocks to using compostable containers include cost, access to suppliers and most of all, consumer behavior.

Cornell Dining and other eateries on campus (including Terrace, Macs, Manndibles, Fork and Gavel, and Temple of Zeus) have tried using compostable containers, and the results have been disappointing. They can’t use compostable plastic because Cayuga Compost does not accept it. Manndibles had to stop using Greenware and Innoware because those products don’t break down at local facilities. Biodegradable and photodegradable containers are not compostable, so anything with those labels are also ruled out. 

Cornell Dining’s supplier for non-foods is Hill & Markes, as they have been awarded the multiyear bid multiple times for the lowest cost of goods and highest quality of service, according to Matthew Johnson, an administrative manager for Student and Campus life. Jana English, a manager at Mac’s and Terrace, said that a limited number of suppliers come to Ithaca, narrowing the sustainable options available. The cafés in Statler Hotel have increased spending  20 percent since 2019, English said, because of the higher demand for plastic and non-reusable goods and their rising prices; the cost of compostable goods would likely be even higher. And the charges for trash, recycling and compost pickup all differ, with Statler cafes paying per ton and per hour for compost, per container for recycling and per ton for trash. There are also fees based on fuel prices and demand for recyclable materials which are charged to the cafes each month. If there was success with compostable containers on campus, the initial fees would still be more expensive than for plastic containers.

Even if Cornell eateries could source a truly compostable product which Ithaca compost centers could take, the consumers would be the danger to the system. When a compost, recycling and trash bin are nearby, people often throw their boxes in whatever receptacle is closest to them. At Mac’s, they found that once the trash was full, the compost bin would get contaminated by trash and only three percent of their compost bins were even accepted. Once Mac’s changed the configuration and ratio of bins, 95 percent of their compost was accepted. About five years ago, Cornell Dining attempted to use compostable containers, but it failed due to contamination. Most students are unaware of what foods and products belong in the compost bin: all food scraps — excluding meat, fish and dairy products — and acceptable compostable products. 

On the whole, Cornell students and staff care about sustainability and have the capacity to shift their behavior. There are “green” initiatives across campus, such as Statler’s pho bowl made of sugar cane and an incoming order of compostable boxed waters, Zeus’ compostable cups and lids and Libe Cafe’s compostable straws. The dining halls are great at composting food scraps in the food preparation process, and continue to have the reusable container program that began in 2018. 

If Cornell eateries offered Cayuga Compost acceptable reusable containers all throughout campus (post-COVID),and if Cornell better educated students and staff on what belongs in the compost bin, we would generate a lot less waste. There are many roadblocks to a more sustainable future in the Cornell dining facilities, but awareness of the problem and potential solutions is an important first step in change. 

Melanie Metz is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at mmetz@cornellsun.com