Clark’s Transitioning Compost Program: What to Know

Malcolm Jacob, Scarlet Staff

As of January 1, Clark University has not been collecting compost outside of dining facilities. But what does this transition mean for the future? And how has the practice changed over the years?

The history of composting at Clark is actually a subject that covers a variety of areas and is related to what is happening at the state level. The initiative started here in 2007, when the school’s contracted waste hauler first connected with WeCare Environmental. This is a private company which operates a facility in the city of Marlborough (keep this in mind, as there are few others like it in the area). For a long time, the school’s organic waste was delivered to WeCare, starting with food waste from campus dining, and then expanding to include residence halls, the Academic Commons, and athletic facilities.

It was first a matter of being more sustainable, but eventually it would also become a matter of compliance. In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enacted a ban on commercial food waste, which included school cafeterias. According to the DEP, a fourth of the garbage in Massachusetts is food. 

However, Clark’s 20-year contract with Marlborough was not renewed by the city and WeCare Environmental decided to discontinue their collection process. Now, Clark continues to collect and divert food waste with new partners.

Facilities Management and Sustainable Clark are researching possible future alternatives for Clark’s organic waste. Currently, the dining facilities’ food waste is delivered by our current contracted waste hauler to several food waste processors, including a depackaging facility that makes animal feed, and other facilities that make energy from anaerobic digestion.

WeCare Environmental accepted a variety of items for composting, including non-food waste such as paper towels. However, unlike the Greater Boston area, the Worcester region has a much smaller waste-reduction market. In addition to being more selective with the items they allow, the available facilities are also stricter when it comes to contamination (which is when any non-food items end up in the mix). Because it is easier to control what is set aside for compost in the Higgins Cafeteria and the kitchen than anywhere else on campus, Clark’s composting operations are currently limited to the dining side of college life.

However, this does not mean the previous years were without positive changes. For one, the initial composting project allowed various groups across Clark’s network to come together. Facilities Management, Sustainable Clark, Dining Services, students and staff collaborated on the project, and everyone had the chance to learn about the steps involved with composting. In addition, it enhanced relations with Sodexo, the school’s food service provider. This in turn helped in putting more of Clark’s excess food towards Rachel’s Table, an organization which helps feed families facing hunger in the Worcester area.

The rollback of Clark’s composting program is also not permanent. There are other efforts that can be made to cut back on the cost and energy usage from transporting food waste elsewhere. For example, technology such as dehydrators, pulpers, and grinders can be used in-house. The output from these machines can then be sent away, and by removing the middleman, our carbon footprint is reduced. There are many options and the possibilities are still being considered.

“This is a terrific opportunity for each of us to examine our own waste stream and to recognize our areas of improvement,” said Director of Sustainability Jenny Isler about the future of managing food waste at Clark. “It’s an opportunity to look at the front of the pipeline, not just the back. We are often so focused on which bucket something goes in. Now we can see what we are wasting and why.”

The transition is a chance for anyone using the school’s dining services (or interacting with the campus in any way) to reflect on how they can do their small part in making the world cleaner and more sustainable. For example, instead of always relying on the paper takeout containers, you can rent one of the $5 green reusable containers. You can also encourage your family and friends to give composting a try at home.

Meanwhile, Isler and the leaders of the composting movement at Clark are not sitting idly by to  wait for a solution. They will be retraining anybody involved in the process and those searching for alternate composting facilities while also preparing for the next steps. That way, when a suitable facility is found, we will be ready to take up the initiative again, and be more prepared than ever.