Out of sight out of mind—a proverb that certainly rings true regarding our trash. Can you recall everything you have thrown out this week? I struggle to remember where my ever-essential student ID is, so there’s no chance I could recall everything I have thrown out this week, or even everything I’ve thrown out today.
But allow me to bring that forgotten trash back to the forefront of your mind. What ends up happening to your trash? Where does it go once you drop it into the various bins around campus?
These questions intrigued and, for the most part, worried me. No one really wants to picture what ends up happening to their trash. It is understandably disturbing to think about how you personally are contributing to the massive amounts of trash that end up in landfills (hopefully, sometimes trash doesn’t even make it that far) and, in turn, how you individually are polluting the Earth further than we, as a species, already have. The answers to these questions also hold us accountable to follow through by making sure that we do our part to compost our dining hall food.
Alas, the only way to ameliorate the problem is first to truly understand it. And that is precisely why last week I camouflaged myself in one of the trash bins and followed our trash from campus all the way to a landfill to see where it goes.
Nah, I did not actually do that. But, what I did do is speak with Molly Funk, the student sustainability manager of BC Dining and MCAS ’22, who provided fantastic answers to my aforementioned questions (and I didn’t have to end up inside the back of a garbage truck).
Food waste, specifically, was the most intriguing. What happens to our scraps when we put them in those notorious yellow bins in and around dining halls?
Well, Save That Stuff is a waste collector in Boston, and it handles the waste from Boston College, including the school’s food waste for compost. You probably would even recognize its big green trucks from around campus that say “Save that Stuff,” sometimes featuring an apple core. In its composting process, the scraps undergo anaerobic digestion, which eventually produces methane gas. That methane gas is then harvested and used for energy. The other organic materials produced from the process are also utilized, mostly in fertilizers. Isn’t that neat —your leftover food is in turn making more food! Don’t judge my excitement on this, c’mon that’s got to get you at least a little jazzed.
Lower also participates in composting, independent of Save That Stuff. There are employees standing behind the waste conveyor belt in Lower and sorting all items into their respective recycling, composting, or landfill bins. This sorting process operates with an almost 100 percent accuracy, so it is practically guaranteed that the waste will end up where it is supposed to be.
This same sorting process often presents an issue for students when they are trying to throw away their trash in the dining hall. Isabella Turco and Anne Marie Green, both BC ’20 and environmental studies minors, investigated this exact issue in 2020, and found that students generally understand how to sort their recycling, but that there is still a lot of room for error, and therefore a lot of room for contamination.
In terms of recycling, BC uses single-stream recycling, so there is no need to sort through the recyclables. But, I also know that students will often, in a rush, tend to throw everything into the landfill bin as to save time and for fear of messing up and contaminating the compost or recycling bin.
This fear may be a bit unfounded, though. Firstly, it is always worth the extra second to look at the pretty pictures above the bins. They usually are informative about what to put where. But, even if you still throw something in the wrong bin, it is not automatically destined for the landfill. Some contaminated compost can still be composted. Employees of BC are not permitted to decide on their own whether a bin is too contaminated to send off to Save That Stuff. Rather, all of the composting bins are sent, and then it is up to Save That Stuff to sort through it and decide whether it can salvage what is compostable. Unless the contamination is egregious, most of the time the waste items can still be composted.
BC has also made an effort to make more of its dining tools (utensils, bowls, napkins) compostable. Compostable food containers were especially important last year, when students were encouraged not to eat inside of the dining halls. But, now with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, reusable plates and silverware have returned. These options are, as always, preferable to any single-use items and as convenient as it is to take food to go, perhaps consider sitting in the dining hall every now and then.
So, that is where your food goes. What you do now with this information is up to you. Surely, I would advise you to continue to be cognizant of where your waste goes, at BC and beyond, as well as keeping up on your waste sorting. It is the little things that add up, and we are going to need a lot of adding up to remedy the global-scale trash crisis we currently find ourselves enveloped in.
Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor