High Marks for Composting at Wartburg College

07/01/2015 | By Jennie Morton

Collects kitchen scraps and implemented trayless dining

Wartburg college

Wartburg College collected over 13,000 pounds of pre-consumer food waste in the 2013-2014 school year. PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIE DREWES

Trayless dining and collection for kitchen scraps – Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, ensures students are learning about sustainability outside of the classroom. During the 2013-2014 school year, the private college collected over 13,000 pounds of pre-consumer food waste, says Anne Duncan, environmental sustainability coordinator.

The campus offers one all-you-care-to-eat dining center, three eateries, and a catering business. With 1,400 students on meal plans, Dining Services produces up to 400 breakfasts, 900 lunches, and 800 dinners each weekday. The cafeteria is also open on weekends and serves meals during the summer for camps and conferences.

Emphasis is placed on recovering food at the point of origin – kitchen preparation. Trimmings from fruits and vegetables, coffee grinds, and egg shells are set aside in sturdy totes ranging from 5 to 20 gallons. These are collected three times a week and delivered to the city’s composting facility. To measure this organic waste stream, workers simply record the weight of each bin ready for pick up, explains Duncan.

Back in 2008, the college eliminated trays in its dining rooms. The goal was to combat food waste by encouraging students to make healthier choices about meal portions. This has led to a decrease in partially eaten leftovers thrown in the trash, as well as associated savings from reduced water and cleaning chemicals in the dish room.

In addition to documenting its recycling efforts, Wartburg was rated at the Gold Level under the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). Offered by AASHE (the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), the program is “a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.” Wartburg’s composting protocol earned points under the Waste Minimization and Diversion categories.

Due to its rural setting, one of the barriers that Wartburg faces is a lack of cost-competitive composting services. While the city can accommodate the college’s volume of pre-consumer food waste (13,000 pounds), there isn’t a transportation infrastructure in place to collect post-consumer scraps. If this option existed, Wartburg would be able to capture the 160,000 pounds of total food waste from its sole dining center each year, Duncan notes, in addition to waste at its retail outlets.

Until an institutional-level solution is identified, the college is focusing on efficiencies in its back-of-house operations. “This includes menu management, production service records, forecasting based on past recorded use, recipes that are standardized to the serving, and recording leftover food in order to improve forecasting the next time around. This new method is specifically designed to decrease food waste by controlling inventory, ordering, production, and leftovers. As a direct result of better forecasting and less waste, actual dollars spent on food last year were less than the previous year,” explains Margaret Empie, assistant vice president for Dining and Retail Services.

Another challenge is student turnover – there’s always a new batch of workers that need to be trained to ensure the program remains on target.

“Dining Services hires nearly 300 students who are also the clientele. Not many business have their customers in the kitchens with them,” Empie says. “This is a rare opportunity to have students see and learn these transferrable sustainability practices first-hand.”

Duncan encourages other building owners to embrace the sometimes experimental path to composting and food recovery. Her most important tip: “Make good partnerships. Don’t just dictate changes, particularly to a department you may not work in. Collaborate with colleagues who will invest in food waste reduction so you have a win-win for everyone.”


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