Food Waste Diversion in a Residence Hall?

Behind the Scenes at the BU Medical Student Residence

Meet Leah Hollander and Emily Anderson, two BU School of Medicine students (Class of 2022) pioneering the first student-run food waste diversion program in the Medical Student Residence (MSR) at 815 Albany Street. They are part of the BUMC Climate Action Group, a coalition of students, faculty, and staff who are dedicated to engaging in climate change education and campus sustainability. The pair led a petition in support of the pilot program and have taken responsibility for implementation and maintenance.

Why food waste diversion?

Coming to Boston from a city with mandated food waste diversion, Emily was already accustomed to separating out her food scraps. In addition, both Emily and Leah tie the practice back to their passion for public health. “I have long felt it my duty to do what I can to minimize my contribution to global climate change as this has major impacts on the health of our population,” says Leah. Emily also points out that “climate change is bad for health; as future physicians, our goal is to promote health. I think we have a responsibility to our patients to mitigate our impact as much as we can.”

Food waste diversion, although not exactly the same as composting, has many similar benefits. Composting is defined as “using organic waste to create a nutrient-rich soil amendment” while food waste diversion is about redirecting food scraps toward industrial uses, or to serve as animal feed. Boston University’s on-campus food waste diversion program involves sending material to an anaerobic digestion facility in North Andover. Anaerobic digestion is a process through which microorganisms digest organic materials anaerobically (without oxygen). Anaerobic digesters produce biogas which, through combustion, powers the facilities. This is an environmentally preferable practice compared to the organics being sent to a landfill, where their decomposition would contribute to climate change through their release of methane to the atmosphere.

How did they get the program going?

First off, the students sought approval from the University to get their program off the ground.

Leah and Emily received support from John Barton, the Executive Director of Medical Campus Facilities, who helped them connect with Save that Stuff, the University’s recycling hauler. “BU already offers food waste diversion in dining halls on campus, so we were able to partner with the same company to collect organic waste for our residence hall. This same company already has access to our building to pick up recycling, so it wasn’t hard for them to add another stop,” says Emily.

Once the students determined the necessary budget to support the initiative ($30/week), they set about raising funds through a GoFundMe campaign. Over the course of the academic year, this amounts to slightly over $1,000. This comes out to just over $7.50 per participant per year. To put this in perspective, $7.50 would buy one box of fourteen brand name 30-gallon trash bags.

Keeping the program going

With the launch behind them, the students are now focused on maintaining the program. “It takes very little time,” comments Emily. The two use a spreadsheet to track their program observations. They also meet periodically to review progress.

The initiative is having a noticeable impact. “According to Save That Stuff, we’ve averaged 90 pounds of food waste diverted per week,” notes Emily. Now that the program is established, the two are hopeful that they will be able to divert even more next year by helping students get into the habit from the start of the semester. Following the success of their initiative, Leah and Emily are eager to see food waste diversion expand at Boston University.

Taking Initiative

There are a number of ways members of the BU community can reduce their environmental impact and contribute to achievement of the goals in the BU Climate Action Plan. “When making decisions about food purchases, be mindful of the type, quantity, and packaging to minimize how much there is to get rid of,” advises BU’s new Zero Waste Manager, Kaity Robbins.

In addition to adopting individual sustainable habits, students may decide to approach opportunities on a larger scale. “If you live on campus, start reaching out to people in Facilities and upper management,” says Emily. “Find a way to show that student interest is there. Do your research and talk to all of your stakeholders. Don’t give up if the first response from administration isn’t the one you hoped for.”

Students living off-campus may wish to explore options within their neighborhoods. “If you live close to a Greenovate Boston Project Oscar location, you can drop off organic waste yourself,” says Emily. “Otherwise [there are] a few options that provide curbside residential pick-up. If you live in Cambridge, curbside pick-up is already available through the City.”