With a population of over 44,000 students, the University of Michigan is one of the leading public research universities located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The university has been recognized by AASHE’s Sustainable Campus Index for their sustainability efforts to maintain a green campus and programs. Driving these sustainability efforts are Keith Soster, Director of Student Engagement and Anya Dale, Manager of Waste Reduction and Engagement at the University of Michigan. Both Keith and Anya’s work includes advancing the university’s commitment to sustainable foodservice practices.
On a typical day, Michigan Dining serves about 25,000 meals. Prior to switching to compostables, to go meals were served primarily in a variety of plastic and paper foodservice ware. “We had thousands of packaging items,” noted Keith. “Streamlining to World Centric compostables has allowed us to reduce our packaging orders to a few hundred items. Although compostables were more expensive to switch to, streamlining our orders and minimizing our inventory actually resulted in an overall cost savings for us.”
All post-consumer waste, including compostable packaging, and pre-consumer waste, including food scraps from Michigan Dining’s kitchens, is diverted to WeCare Compost where it’s turned into compost, mulch, and topsoil. These composting efforts began on campus roughly 8 years ago. One of the first residential halls equipped with composting bins was Bursley Hall, an all-freshman dorm on campus. “The Institute of Social Research actually did a study to look at the residents in Bursley and their sustainability habits a year after moving in”, explained Keith.
“They found that students who lived in Bursley their first year and learned composting through using compostable packaging and disposing of food scraps in the bins actually composted at a higher rate overall once they moved out of the dorms.”
Keith Soster, Director of Student Engagement, University of Michigan
In addition to 650 bins being placed in staff kitchens across campus, 350 bins have been placed in residential hall waste closet and food service and dining areas. Keith and Anya saw an opportunity to divert coffee grounds, leftover lunch scraps, and compostable packaging from these small kitchens to composters. “Some of our staff worried that adding compost bins into their offices would attract pests”, explained Anya. “We had to help them understand that this is not new waste - it’s the same waste going into a different colored bin. Bugs don’t care if a bin is marked blue or green. As long as the bin is emptied at the same frequency, pests shouldn’t be a problem with compost bins.”
In addition to converting to World Centric compostable foodservice ware and composting initiatives, Michigan Dining is also committed to several other sustainable foodservice practices. First, Michigan Dining focuses on providing students with local and sustainable foods. As of 2020, Michigan Dining purchased 19.6% of its food from local or sustainable sources, including 30 local farmers and suppliers. Second, on the menu Michigan Dining focuses on meatless Mondays by offering a plant-focused menu weekly that eliminates red meat. This shift has allowed Michigan Dining to reduce the carbon footprint of their menu by as much as 60% on Mondays. And lastly, Michigan Dining works to ensure that food does not go to waste. The student-run Food Recovery Network partners with Michigan Dining to collect surplus food and donate it to food insecure community members. To date, this initiative has prevented nearly 35,110 pounds of food from being wasted.
Today, Keith and Anya are committed to developing even more practices to make the university as sustainable as possible. With an increase in the use of compostable foodservice packaging as a result of the pandemic, students are more aware of composting and want to see an expansion of the availability of composting bins across campus.
“Our students are really into composting. They are asking for more bins and they would like to see them in lounges and hallways."
Anya Dale, Office of Campus Sustainability, University of Michigan
“However, we have to make sure that these areas are being monitored in order to avoid contamination,” notes Keith. “Students look for the closest waste receptacles, not necessarily the closest compost bins. We need more composting bins in order to meet our campus goal of 40% diversion of waste from landfills, however, we have to continue to educate incoming students on compostables, composting and the correct way to separate waste.”