Is Cornell Dining Actually Sustainable?

A Cornell student looks closely at the sustainability of those providing food on campus, and those eating it...

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Trillium Waste Disposal (Olivia Lutwak / Dining Editor)
Trillium Waste Disposal (Olivia Lutwak / Dining Editor)

By Michelle Shin via The Cornell Daily Sun, 3/8/17

Cornell is known to be one of the top “green” universities in the country, ranked fifteenth by the Princeton Review for green colleges. The plethora of recycling and compost bins on campus, regional food sourcing and trayless dining all make it seem like Cornell is living up to its rank. The recent offering of Plant-Powered Dinners and of reusable utensils at Ivy Room seemed to underscore Cornell Dining’s sustainability initiatives. But I wanted to learn more about what happens behind the scenes. With my original question of Is Cornell Dining actually “green”?, I soon found myself in the back of Cornell’s most popular lunch eatery: Trillium.

Trillium is an eatery on the Ag Quad, serving an average of 2,200 students just for lunch. Its various options — from ramen bowls to salads to quesadillas — mean there is something for everyone. So it’s not surprising that Trillium serves lunch to more students than any other eatery on campus. Upon first entering Trillium, you can immediately see three large trash cans, two recycling bins and a yellow compost bin. Or should I say, five trash cans with different colors. These bins’ contents are indistinguishable — each one has a mix of recyclable plastics, food, napkins and utensils. The large informational posters above each bin seem to serve no purpose.

Being an avid environmentalist, I often wonder if the waste management team even accepts our “sorted” waste. The truth is exactly what I feared: any compost or recycling bin that has a single displaced item is then considered to be contaminated.

So last week, I found myself at Trillium, ready to fire away all of my questions and ideas to Scott Davis, the current manager of the Ag Quad’s eateries. Scott has worked with Cornell Dining for 21 years, and he was far more knowledgeable about the sustainable initiatives taken by the dining staff. He patiently listened to all of my inquiries before leading me to check out the back end of Trillium.

The moment I entered, I was shocked to find just how much was going on in such a small space. One thing was for sure: Trillium dislikes food waste. The staff were cooling all leftover, edible foods to serve the next day, making vegetable broth with the stems and tops of vegetables and composting nearly every food scrap that could not be reused. What’s more, the oil used at the grill station is cooled and filtered at the end of each day to be reused for a week. This then gets sent over to a company in Elmira for further use. And there is even a system among the dining halls to send over over-ripened bananas for baking. They were really trying to do everything they could to manage waste.

But what about the contamination of waste bins in the front end? Cornell Dining tried to address this issue by changing its signage in several ways, including updating items and adding pictures, to better communicate directions. Trillium even used to have students stationing the waste area to help raise awareness and to coach the best disposal practices. Scott explained, “We’ve tried everything, we really have. But any sort of intervention never worked.” Ultimately, it dwindled down to the blatant truth. He emphasized, “It needs to start with students making the conscious decision to compost and recycle.”

It’s true. For Cornell to truly be as sustainable as it could be, it begins with us taking just a few extra seconds to sort our items into the right bin or better, simply reducing the amount of waste overall. It’s so simple, but as overbooked, stressed college students, it’s hard for us to be mindful about our waste or give another thought to the plastic bottle we so easily throw away. I myself am guilty of this too. But if change really happens with us, maybe it wouldn’t be so much of a waste of time to take those few seconds to consider our impact on our surrounding environment.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.