Reduce, reuse, revamp: Compost in the time of coronavirus

Dining facilities’ use of compostable takeout containers leads to trash build-ups and changes for the campus compost crew.


Lilah Kimble

Dining services’ use of compostable takeout containers and other safety precautions have lead to trash build-ups

Annalisa Waddick

Students walking past Commons might notice something different this year than in years past: there’s a lot more trash. That’s because campus dining services decided to make the switch from dishware to takeout containers at all dining locations to help limit the spread of coronavirus. 

Ryan Miller, Associate Director of Dining Services, explained over email how dining services came to the decision. 

“The decision to serve on entirely compostable products was one that we did not take lightly,” Miller says, “but in the end it was what we determined to be the best solution given the Virginia Department of Health mandates and reduction in seating and venue capacity.” 

Jennifer Hickey, Director of Dining Services, explained that about 16,000 to go containers of different sizes and types have been used each week since the switch. 

To accommodate this switch, Dining Services was granted a larger budget. 

“We are fortunate that W&L is consistently committed to ensuring dining services has what it needs to be able to serve our students,” Hickey says. 

Unfortunately, as of right now, most of the containers are ending up in the trash, but plans for change are in the works. 

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  • The use of to-go containers instead of dishware in all campus dining locations has lead to a buildup of trash.

  • Students will miss the E-cafe’s bagels, flatbreads and smoothies while Hillel is temporarily closed. Photo by Lilah Kimble, ’21.

  • The use of to-go containers instead of dishware in all campus dining locations has lead to a buildup of trash.

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“We are working collaboratively with Facilities and Sustainability to determine how to best manage the new waste streams,” Miller said. 

Kim Hodge, Director of Sustainability Initiatives and Education and the creator of the Compost Crew, has been a part of that collaboration. 

“With this added trash around, what I’m hoping is to be able to put more collection bins out and create an entire second set of the compost crew,” Hodge said.  “[They] would maybe go into, if I could get it approved, residence halls and we could have one or two compost collection bins on each floor… or we put them in the amphitheater or outside of Huntley.” 

Jeronimo Reyes, ‘21, one of the co-heads of the Compost Crew this year, says he too hopes to put compost bins in residence halls in the safest way possible. 

“We are interested in partnering with First-Year volunteers in order to establish a safe and efficient system to pick up compost from First-Year dorms,” Reyes says in an email.

Hodge and Reyes’ strategy relies on an increase in the amount of students who are members of the Compost Crew. Last year, the crew was composed of one compost operations person and less than 15 students, who worked in pairs once a week to pick up compost in their designated spots around campus. 

Increased waste on campus has led to changes for the compost crew. (Lilah Kimble)

But this year, after putting out information in campus notices, Hodge has already had nearly double the number of students interested. 

“I think that [interest] means that we can have our normal runs, and then we can look at where are the hotspots on campus and how can we address those,” Hodge said. 

But an increased crew isn’t a foolproof solution. Hodge acknowledged that the capacity of the campus compost units isn’t unlimited. 

“It all gets shredded and then placed in there, and right now one of the bins will fill up every seven weeks or so, so I think it’ll fill up faster,” Hodge said. “But we have a rottional system…we just keep moving material around.”

While adapting to these problems, the Compost Crew is also having to adapt to meet coronavirus prevention guidelines. 

“Crew members are required to wear a mask within the compost truck at all times, with the window down whenever possible, and are advised to keep the mask on outside of the truck for the duration of the run,” Reyes says. “Likewise, they are advised to wear gloves throughout the run, and disinfect before and after with hand sanitizer.” 

Compost Crew is hopeful that these changes and collaborations with facilities and dining services will lead to a decrease in waste going to the landfill.