Composting initiative complements sustainability efforts

Last semester, one Chartwells meal supplied three disposable utensils. Containers were to be unceremoniously dumped in the trash, along with the salt and pepper packets, emptied bag of chips, and other meal-related plastics. Those days may soon be over.

Chartwells dining locations across campus are introducing compostable alternatives to their traditional disposables. In November, Carnegie Mellon’s dining service introduced a new position: Sustainability Coordinator. The post was filled by Kathleen Humphreys, who hopes to usher in a zero waste era on campus. One of the first steps is introducing compost.

In an email to The Tartan, Humphreys explained that Chartwells had planned the initiative prior to the pandemic, but the campus shut-down put the project on pause. “Once I joined the team,” Humphreys wrote, “Chartwells and the University felt that it was a good time to begin this transition back to compostable items.”

Deborah Steinberg, who serves as the Sustainability Manager at Facilities Management and Campus Services (FMCS), expects that one million pounds of CMU waste will be converted into compost for academic year (AY) 2021-2022. But this is just the beginning of a larger plan for a green campus.

“While composting is a great solution to single use plastics, going zero waste is typically a more sustainable option, since there will always be human error landing these items in the landfill,” Humphrey wrote. This part of Chartwells’ sustainability plan has been piloted in Schatz, which is introducing silverware and cloth napkins. Humphreys expects similar initiatives to launch across other campus dining locations, although Chartwells has not creates a definitive timeline for this process.

Chartwells is not the only group on campus focusing on sustainability. Carnegie Mellon is one of 80 undergraduate institutions participating in Campus Race to Zero Waste (CR2ZW). The competition, which runs from January 31 to March 26, challenges campuses to reduce their net waste. University of Alabama Recycling currently ranks highest, responsible for diverting almost 90 percent of its waste. Carnegie Mellon is ranked 44th, with a net diversion of 31 percent.

The CR2W website maintained that no material prizes are awarded to winners, because raising awareness supersedes the competition component. Instead, “participants compete for the ‘glory’ of winning and knowing they are making a difference.” They receive much-coveted digital badges for taking part in the challenge, as do category winners.

Carnegie Mellon currently ranks ninth in the Cans and Bottles category, 24th in Food Organics, and 55th in the Per-Capita Classic. Final results will be released in April.

Paper, plastic, aluminum, cardboard, and glass recycling on campus have all steadily decreased since AY2014-2015, according to data from Environment at CMU. The diversion rate, however, has grown over the same period. Around 30 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s municipal solid waste was recycled in AY2018-19 (pre-pandemic).

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education named Carnegie Mellon among its 64 gold recipients in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System. Platinum, which was awarded to 12 institutions including ASU, Cornell, and Berkley, preceded gold. The Princeton Review’s Top 50 Green Colleges list does not include Carnegie Mellon.

Humphreys is pushing for sustainability initiatives on campus to gain purchase within the student body. Marketing recent changes is one the greatest difficulties Chartwells’ sustainability team has experienced. Humphreys pointed to “the need for marketing and education,” because many of the alternatives “look and feel like plastic, so students aren’t aware that they’re compostable.”