Sustainable students create change in Wismer

Photo courtesy of Henry Gustafson

An environmental studies class is working to increase composting on campus with new initiative

Emily Jolly


What happens to your food waste after you place it in the Wismer dish return? Thanks to some environmental studies students, chances are it’ll be composted. In order to sustainably manage the food waste in Upper Wismer, these students are taking on a new composting initiative.

Eight students in Talkin’ Trash: Waste in America, Dr. Leah Joseph’s environmental studies capstone class, started this initiative in order to reduce the plastic waste corrupting the compost pulp.

Students Sydney Godbey, Victor Fernandez, Catherine Buczek, Corey Markovitch, Carla Maccaroni, Steve Mohapp, Kylie Selkirk, and Rob Bandstra explain that they are composting the food waste that was turned to pulp from Upper Wismer in a bin they made by the soccer field. Fernandez explained that over time they will make other composting areas and measure the changes to the compost.

Dining Services have been composting for around 10 years, but the facility where Ursinus used to send its compost shut down a year and a half ago, according to Ron Wood, the director of Dining Services.

Since then, the food waste has been sent in the garbage to an incinerator, Markovitch added. He explained that when the generator is working, the waste is burned and converted into energy.

“We’re trying to get our food waste to be composted by another company,” he said. “They refused to take our food waste because it [was contaminated with] high levels of plastics . . . [Now] we’re trying to show them that we [can] make changes and [hope] they’ll accept [the waste].”

Buczek acknowledged that there is a benefit from turning the waste into energy, but sees a better cycle in the composting system. “If you look at it this way, we’re putting food in there, and then if it gets composted it gets turned into dirt. That dirt is used to grow more food, so it’s sustainable and [the composting] makes sense.”

However, the only way to fulfill this composting dream is to reduce the plastic waste.

“The biggest problem we’re facing in Wismer is the [plastic waste]: butter cups, peanut butter cups, jelly cups, honey cups, the chip bags, the gloves that the workers have on in the dish return area, and plastic spoons,” said Buczek.

So far, the group has placed a trashcan in the dish return area with signs to remind students to throw out their plastic waste before placing their dishes on the conveyor belt. However, Maccaroni explained, this system still confused students as they also threw out their compostable paper boats and napkins.

Working with Wood and Dining Services, the group has gotten Upper to switch some of the packets to bulk servings, according to Buczek. “You’ll get the butter with the knife where the cream cheese is, and the same thing with the jelly. It’s all going to be there, but it’s not going to be in the plastic cups,” she said.

The group understands that these changes will take some getting used to. The bulk system is already in transition, and Ron Wood sent out a campus-wide email to students explaining the change.  

In the face of student misgivings, Buczek and others in the group appeal to students to understand that “getting rid of those items should solve a huge amount of the [composting] problems.” She noted that there seems to be less plastic waste so far, but that this new system and a knowledge of what plastics should be disposed of will get close to eliminating it completely.

While sending the compost to an outside company is their main objective, the group also has another goal in mind: getting the school to take pride in green living. Maccaroni wants the Ursinus community to be able to say, “We’re a composting campus: We compost our food waste.”

The group realizes that this change will not happen in a single semester.

“I think it’s going to be a while before 100 percent of students are throwing their plastics in the right area,” Bandstra said. He explained that this will have to be continued for at least the next semester, as it takes a minimum of six weeks for waste to go from food pulp to compost, and other students will have to help continue their work.

The group hopes this initiative lasts longer than the semester and even the school year. Working with the other half of their class, the Surfacing Sustainability Initiative, Buczek explained that they want to bring sustainability awareness to campus and keep it going among future generations.