The Stanford Daily
Perched precariously atop a barbed wire fence, John Mulrow looks down and surveys the scene. Several dumpsters nearly overflowing with just-expired food enter his field of vision, and he jumps down into the courtyard. Picking up a black trash bag stuffed with spoiled meats, he smells it, wrinkles his nose and tosses it back on the pile.
Digging further, he finds several tubs of ice cream. He picks one up and liquid cream pours out.
“Ugh, four hours too late,” he remarks.
As he continues to search for discarded treasures in the grocery store dumpster, he finds wilted lettuce, shredded celery and rotten tomatoes. Finally, he finds what he came searching for: a sack filled with several baguettes. Success — he’ll be able to eat bread this week.
No, Mulrow is not a homeless man scavenging for his next meal. He is an environmentalist and the former president of Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS), a coalition aiming to reduce Stanford’s consumption of resources.
By consuming foods that are produced — or salvaged — locally, Mulrow conserves transportation fuel and limits food waste. His method? Dumpster diving, or taking advantage of food thrown away by restaurants and grocery stores, most of which has only recently expired and is still edible.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 27 percent of the food produced in and for the United States is wasted. A portion of the wasted food is salvaged or composted, but the vast majority of it ends up in landfills, where it emits greenhouse gases and contributes to global warming.
Mulrow isn’t alone in his drive to fight the problem. Stanford too recognizes the severity of this environmental issue and is thus making efforts to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills.
In order to accomplish this goal, Stanford has implemented different programs that limit the amount of excess food produced and wasted on campus. These measures include sustainable dining initiatives, food donation programs and a compost program.
To reduce the amount of food going to landfills, the first challenge that Stanford must tackle is reducing the amount of excess food produced in the first place. Dining halls are a good place to start, due to the large-scale production of food — the waste of which Stanford Dining has been working hard to combat.
One of Stanford Dining’s EatWell initiatives is the Love Food Hate Waste program.
“[The program] creat[es] sustainable dining for the campus community,” said Executive Director Eric Montell in an e-mail to The Daily.
The initiative, through education and outreach, encourages students to use smaller plates and to go trayless.
“We are focused on reducing food waste [and] educating students about making healthy food choices and appropriate portioning for wellness,” Montell said.
While Stanford Dining has been working toward sustainability for quite some time, the trayless pilot program was just implemented this fall in Wilbur and Stern Dining.
“We started last year with a voluntary trayless program in all of the dining halls to encourage students to take a tray if they need one,” Montell explained.
At the end of the year, a survey was conducted showing a majority of students in favor of a trayless dining program.
“Wilbur and Stern were picked as two pilot dining halls since they primarily house freshman who would be unbiased to using a tray,” Montell continued. “It is too early to tell if this has had an overall impact on food waste. This will be reviewed more closely at the end of the fall quarter.”
While the trayless — both pilot and voluntary — programs have yet to return quantifiable data, Florence Moore Dining Chef Nijo Joseph says he has seen a reduction in the amount of food waste produced at his dining hall.
“Stanford Dining is doing a good job,” he said.
Still, larger dining halls continue to prepare excess food, despite the success of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. That’s where the Stanford Project on Hunger (SPOON) comes in.
SPOON’s student volunteers take the food to a freezer, where it is picked up by the Palo Alto Opportunity Center, a local homeless center. SPOON’s project also cuts down on the amount of food available to dumpster divers like Mulrow.
SPOON salvages unserved food, but much of the excess food prepared on campus does not fall into that category. Rather, it is spoiled or contaminated, and so members of the Stanford community dispose of the food in either a trash can or compost bin. If deposited in a compost bin, the nutrients will be recycled.
How Composting Works
During the composting process, microbes assist in the biodegradation, or breakdown, of organic matter such as foods and yard trimmings. The end product of composting — compost — is a nutrient-rich organic matter that is used as a soil additive or fertilizer.
Stanford first implemented a compost program in January of 2003. The pilot program began at Stern Dining when Stanford’s waste service, Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc. (PSSI) began collecting organic waste separately from the recyclables and garbage.
Soon after, compost collection spread to the other six dining halls on campus. Since then, row houses, as well as larger cafes, such as the Faculty Club, have been added to the compost program.
Composting at Stanford diverts approximately 186 tons of organic waste each month, according to Julie Muir, Stanford’s recycling program manager. That number continues to increase as Stanford expands the composting program to smaller cafes, and 29 cafes currently have access to a compost bin.
However, incorporating the smaller cafes has been harder than originally anticipated, said Muir, due to the logistics of collection and transportation.
PSSI trucks collect waste and yard trimmings from around campus. They transport the organic materials to Newby Island, a compost center in Milpitas that also houses a landfill and recycling center.
Once the organic waste arrives at Newby Island, contaminants — mostly plastics — are removed by hand. Then the material travels through the chute of a chipper, and fountains of shredded organic matter spew out the top, ready to begin decomposing.
Once the material is shredded, tractors move it to eight-foot tall rows, which resemble the uniformly spaced mounds of strawberry fields. The compost piles sit for 90 to 180 days, during which they are turned over in order to allow the microbes to sufficiently decompose the material.
At the end of the cycle, landscapers buy much of the compost. Stanford also reclaims half of what they sent, using the finished product for groundskeeping on campus.
The composting program has taken a sizable bite out of Stanford’s food waste problem. Still, there’s room for improvement.
“I don’t think it’s the best we can do,” Muir said.
Moving compost to and from Newby Island has high transportation costs, both environmental and economic. Also, despite the raising awareness of compost on campus, 28 percent of the waste on campus still comes from organics, according to a recent waste audit conducted by Muir.
“It’s the ultimate waste of a resource,” Muir said when discussing the logistical hurdle of collecting from 600 buildings. “The energy that went into producing the food gets thrown away.”
Meanwhile, food that could have been recycled to provide nutrients to grow new plants instead decays in landfills. There, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In order to curb the landfill methane emissions and to create a more sustainable Stanford, Muir, Dining and SSS have been working to improve the composting program.
“There are opportunities to compost small volumes of food waste on campus and we are in fact starting to do this,” Montell said. “We are currently diverting coffee grounds from Tresidder and [the] Alumni Cafe.”
The coffee grounds provide an excellent source of nitrogen for soils in dining hall gardens and on the Stanford Community Farm, while small, on-campus composting efforts have the potential to expand exponentially.
“We’re working with several students to understand whether and how we might divert and compost a greater amount of campus food waste at the Community Farm,” Montell explained. “We’re hoping to pilot a small program by the end of this year.”
Another on-campus composting option that Muir has considered is utilization of a methane digester machine. The digester would produce — in addition to compost — high-energy gases such as methane. The methane could then become a source of alternative energy, rather than an atmospheric pollutant.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Muir said.
While the methane digester would indeed solve many logistical problems and make urban composting more feasible, it is still a long way off.
“It’s mostly a conversation piece so far,” Muir explained.
The digesters would be too expensive for the University to develop in the poor economic conditions, so the detailed plans of the machines have not been completely discussed, Muir explained. Still, Stanford aims for a zero waste campus.
If reached, Stanford’s zero waste goal would make Mulrow’s bread dumpster dives much less lucrative. Cornucopias of baguettes won’t sit free atop other discarded items. But perhaps Mulrow won’t need to turn to the dumpster for his sustainable, locally salvaged bread in the future.
As Dining, Muir and SSS continue to tackle food waste issues, Stanford will become more effective in conserving food and nutrients. The programs may even encourage locally produced bread.
As a result, Mulrow will be able to purchase his baguettes instead of risking his life — and legal record — for them. Trespassing for the sake of sustainability can only be sustainable for so long.