Featured homepage Waste

Celebrating Campus Composting

Written by student associate, Kyla Fung, Class of 2026, and Cassandra Hage, assistant director of sustainability

From single-use utensils to banana peels, campus dining halls and cafés typically produce a high volume of waste. In order to reduce our carbon footprint and be a more responsible community member, WashU began separating compostable materials at certain dining locations in 2011. The program built momentum over time as more locations began building compost collection into their kitchen and dining room waste collection processes. The massive shift of operations and occupancy that the COVID pandemic necessitated halted progress and even regressed some of the sustainability strategies related to waste management. However, the programs are rebounding as we re-build and re-train our campus community.

Composting Returns to Hillman Hall with the opening of a new café 

Of these new exciting and growing initiatives, WashU is thrilled to celebrate the return of building-wide composting at Hillman Hall after a COVID-19 hiatus. Building-wide compost collection was piloted at Hillman Hall in 2018 as part of the annual national RecycleMania competition. Their Race to Zero Waste Challenge provides a pathway to expand the composting that was already available in the café area to the common spaces throughout the building. Luckily, Hillman Hall was designed in a way that made the pivot easy, and also necessary as the waste from café purchases often impacted many of the common spaces throughout the building.

Compost collection stopped when the Grounds for Change café closed and the building was largely vacant. However, the recent opening of re-imagined Coffeestamp provided the opportunity to reinstate this practice. Coffeestamp is widely popular for its warm empanadas and aromatic fair-trade coffee. Founded locally by brothers Spencer and Patrick Clapp, WashU is their second location. The owner-operators have embraced sustainability recommendations that fit in well with their overall look and company culture.

Compost expansion at the School of Business’ Bauer Café

Across campus, the Olin School of Business’ Bauer Café rolled out its own post-consumer compost collection program in their café dining room. Fully launched over the Fall 2022 semester, this transformation was planned for launch in Spring 2020, but was stopped fast by the COVID shut down. After the dust settled and more pressing operational challenges were addressed, partners were able to return to the plan and launch the program. More than just putting out some signs and switching to a compostable bag, this transformation was more complex. The implementation team – Olin facility operations, their new foodservice provider Flik, and the Office of Sustainability – took on a transformation that included switching to all compostable dining serviceware and bulk condiments, two sourcing changes that dramatically reduce contamination and simplify sorting for the consumer. This required an investment of time and money for the transition, but has been critical for the program’s success. Outreach and education to the diners is another critical strategy, and those efforts are ongoing, with signage, publicity and in-person outreach ambassadors.

Compost Collection at the School of Medicine

Beyond the Danforth Campus, the WashU School of Medicine is piloting post-consumer compost collection at its two main dining facilities, Farmstead Café and Shell Café. This campaign started in February 2023 and is ongoing. While collecting compost from the food preparations in the kitchen has been in place for years, post-consumer collection is a new introduction to the campus. To improve and hopefully expedite success, volunteer outreach ambassadors have a daily presence over lunch time.

Rogue Compost Collection Efforts

Because compost collection costs more and requires notable logistical considerations, it is not offered universally across campus. Some departments that have food as a regular part of their waste stream have decided to take on compost collection, and cover the costs through their departments’ budgets. They’ve set up their spaces to accommodate compost collection and adjusted how they purchase and serve food. Two examples of this include the Gephardt Institute and the Kemper Art Museum. The Gephardt Institute operates out of the Stix building (across Forsyth from the DUC) and hosts a lot of events for on- and off-campus community members. Food is a common offering for audiences of around 40, so compost collection provides an opportunity for more responsible waste disposal that aligns with their mission.

Kemper Art Museum started composting shortly before the COVID shut downs and has also restarted collection service as they ramp back up café services and events. They are piloting different strategies to determine how to best integrate compost collection into their operations.

What exactly is composting and how does it play a key role in WashU’s sustainability efforts? 

In a nutshell, composting is a process that takes organic materials originating from the earth and returns them back to the earth, completing the natural cycle of decomposition. Diverting waste from landfills is crucial in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, because when organic materials end up in a landfill, the process of mechanical compaction removes oxygen. The lack of oxygen produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that significantly contributes to global warming. 

Once collected from WashU’s kitchens and dining rooms, the materials are transported by Total Organics Recycling to an industrial compost facility run by St. Louis Composting. This facility manages to turn food waste, yard waste, and certified compostable serviceware into nutrient-rich soil. WashU is also a customer of St. Louis Composting, buying back mulch and compost, which makes this a closed-loop system.

Composting is key (but not the only strategy) in WashU’s sustainability efforts 

With the increasing focus on expanding composting practices and education initiatives, a growing fraction of WashU’s dining-related waste is being diverted from landfills. However, shifting to reusable serviceware and reducing food waste are very important simultaneous strategies. Our recommendation and long term strategy is always to reduce the volume of waste and waste per capita, rather than just shifting to a different kind of waste.

Partnering with Student Sustainability Groups 

In addition to the collaboration between many campus departments, the involvement of student sustainability groups in waste diversion efforts across campus has been an important asset. WashU Green Ambassadors (WUGA), Student Sustainability Board (SSB) and Net Impact (among others) have been key players in advocating for waste reduction and compost initiatives, as well as providing much of the critical outreach and education.  

Want to find out more about WashU’s Sustainability efforts and goals? Check out the resources below! 

Interested to learn more about Coffeestamp? Visit their website! To learn more about WashU’s efforts to support diverse businesses, or to contact a diverse business for an upcoming event or project, visit the Supplier Diversity website.