I thoughts of a solid social media campaign that promotes renewable energy: Less oil. More soil. Maybe we’ll make is a hashtag: #lessoilmoresoil. Or maybe a bumper sticker.
This summer I’m working for the University of Vermont during their summer sessions for incoming students. This means wining and dining hundreds of families under massive tents in the middle of campus; lunches, dinners, and brunches. As part of their greening work, UVM uses compostable utensils and cups (made from corn) and compostable napkins, plates, and coffee cups (uncoated paper products). Corey Berman, who is in charge of waste management for these events, set up source separating stations at the exits to the food tents. “Left is for landfill, and right is for recycling,” is Corey’s mantra, so the landfill and recycling bins have their respective, consistent locations. In the middle are two 55 gallon plastic barrels for compostables.
Because everything but the to-go coffee cup lids and chip bags is compostable, there was no need to advertise what went into the other bins; it’s most prudent to set up the compost posters. Each station had a monitor (that’s what I did).
Between the young students and their parents from all over the country, the composting situation elicited many responses: shock, awe, joy, and confusion- but only one kid said, “We had this in high school and I thought I could escape it here.” Other than that singular curmudgeon, hundreds of people loved the compostable cutlery and dishes. Some people hesitated: “Okay; you’re going to need to help me.” Some people took the challenge: “Wait; don’t tell me. I can do this.” Others said, “Hey, I’m getting the hang of this,” and several said, “It’s cool; I know what I’m doing.”
The ability and option to compost the majority of what’s served at such a function is cause for conversation. Where does the compost go? How do you make compostable forks? (One man was asking which grocery stores sold them so he could go buy some right away.) Having monitors meant that people could engage with the waste station’s functionality and understand why UVM was working so hard at managing their waste.
Numerous smiles from users, too. When composting is that easy to do, people feel very accomplished, as they should. Less oil and more soil is great work, and when people can be agents of change without having to try very hard, it’s proof that great change is possible.
Most of the waste was empty plates and cups. As it was a buffet, people were good at taking only what they’d eat, or possibly taking less each round and having seconds. What was the most disappointing waste? The individual chips bags. People couldn’t choose how many chips to take. They’d take a whole bag, eat half, and end up composting many chips and landfilling the bags.
Certainly, Corey and I agree that calling something a “zero waste” event will always be inaccurate. All those compostables consumed a lot of energy to come into existence, only to be used for 20 minutes while people ate- and then there are the trucks that pick up the composting bins and bring them to the facility to turn into sweet, magical soil… But it’s still less expensive than keeping a landfill alive. And it’s still a message that not everything goes into the landfill can.
Not everyone can afford compostableware to the degree UVM can- but if you can, it’s worth it. People loved composting. It made them feel good (they told me so). It sends less to the landfill. And it starts a discussion. If nothing else, many paper plates and napkins are compostable, as are food scraps. Any waste diversion is better than none, but the important part was hiring monitors. We were able to talk to hundreds of people about the promise of composting.