5 Tips to Contributing and Reducing Food Waste
Illustration by Valerie Morgan
Portable, delicious—and if the old adage holds true, handy for keeping the doctor at bay—the apple could be nature’s perfect food. But up against a turkey club or chocolate chip cookie at a faculty lunch, the forlorn fruit is often the first to go into the trash can.
Now culinary castoffs like the overripe honeydew, limp deli pickle or half-eaten tuna sandwich languishing in departmental kitchens will have another shot at consumption—albeit by microbes rather than co-workers—as the University of Maryland expands its campus composting program this fall.
The program will offer composting opportunities at campus events and in academic buildings across campus, with big green compost bins appearing alongside their black (waste) and blue (recycling) counterparts in campus breakrooms, kitchens and common spaces.
“We want departments to donate excess food whenever possible, whether it’s to student groups or taking it back to the office to eat; we’d rather get food in people’s mouths over the compost stream,” said Karen Petroff, executive director of building and landscape maintenance in Facilities Management. “But when that’s not possible, we’re collecting and composting it.”
Dining Services and the Stamp Student Union have been composting all pre- and post-consumer food waste behind-the-scenes at UMD since 2014, with composting programs added to residence halls and campus cafes prior to the pandemic. Nearly 907 tons of food scraps were collected on campus in 2022—equaling the weight of up to six Boeing 747s. The expansion, currently underway in accordance with a new Maryland state law, will dwarf that number by requiring the collection of food scraps and compostable paper products for all campus events catering to five or more people.
“The fact that we as a university have access to these composting resources can make a big difference,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Ann Tonggarwee, who orders catering for President Darryll J. Pines’ office several times a year and was an early campus composter. “And it’s so easy to do.”
For the uninitiated, or even for veteran backyard composters, the program may spur questions: Can I compost dairy? What’s considered a campus “event”? Am I required to compost if I’m just eating by myself? We break it down below with some bite-sized tips:
Know what to throw: “If you can put it in your mouth, it’s compostable on campus,” said Facilities Management Coordinator Adrienne Small. That includes meat, bones, dairy and processed foods, but also non-edibles like pizza boxes, paper plates and teabags. Equally important is knowing what NOT to compost: metal, glass and any plastic, including plastic-coated paper (Small said a “tear test” will tell you quickly if it’s coated) should hit either the recycling or trash bin instead. Some plant-based plastics are compostable; look for their clearly marked “compostable” labels.
Right-size your order: The key to reducing food waste, said Petroff, is to prevent over-ordering in the first place. Not sure how much food you’ll need? Dining Services, whose catering crew also provides compostable plates, napkins and cutlery, can help you plan for optimum quantities. On a smaller scale, go with your gut, ordering the smaller salad at lunchtime or splitting that foot-long with a coworker.
Give it away, give it away now: If despite your best efforts you find yourself with leftovers, give it away—to faculty, staff and students to take home. Alternatively, organizations like UMD’s Food Recovery Network and Dining Services’ email@example.com can connect still-fresh unserved food with empty bellies at shelters and food pantries.
Educate: The compost process is sensitive, said Small—if in doubt, the landfill is the answer. But educating your team—and for campus events, your guests—can go a long way in ensuring waste is sorted and disposed of responsibly. Informational materials can be ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (for extra bins, contact email@example.com).
Composting is for everyone (but especially for events): If you’re hosting or serving a meal for five or more people—whether it’s a student study group, an alum gathering or faculty search committee meeting—you’re required to give away or compost food scraps and compostable paper products. But Petroff hopes that won’t stop people from composting their PB and J crusts after eating lunch at their desk—and that with time, composting food scraps is as automatic as recycling. “I’d like to think that most people would put it in the compost bin if you had access to it,” she said.
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