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Penn currently does not offer composting services for solid organic waste.

Credit: Derek Wong

Climate week at Penn returns, all while the climate clock continues to tick.

The climate clock is an innovative instrument that tracks temperature data and global greenhouse gas emissions to calculate the deadline by which global warming must be reduced to fall below the 1.5-degree celsius threshold. The current deadline sits at 6.75 years — if the rate of emissions isn’t reduced by then, the impacts will become irreversible. By telling us how quickly the planet is approaching 1.5 degrees celsius, the climate clock serves as an urgent reminder of why transformational action is needed today to combat the climate crisis. 

Solid waste — a product of both fresh and groundwater resources — is a primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The landfills produced by this waste generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and spurs climate change. As a result, improving our methods of disposal to become more sustainable and less wasteful can effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. 

At Penn, and universities at large, there is a high potential for accumulating waste given the high frequency of students utilizing dining halls on campus as well as discarding waste from their dorms. Across the United States, about 3.6 million tons of food are wasted each year, but universities have the opportunity to alter these grave statistics by employing more renewable practices for students. 

To avert this grave reality, Penn should incorporate compost toters or stations in both dorms and dining halls. This way, plastics and nonbiodegradable materials will not increase our collective carbon footprint. Compost toters are organic containers to place waste for the decomposition process to occur over time. Toters are designed to keep away animal predators, and are easily transported to be refilled. Regardless of whether Penn decides to enact toters or alternative composting options, these appliances are imperative for environmental sustainability.

Although Penn currently offers reusable dishes and takeout containers at dining halls, a composting option is necessary to significantly reduce methane emissions. Decomposition of organic material through composting creates fertile soil that can be recycled on the very grounds of campus and/or the local community. 

However, it is not just Penn as an institution that has responsibility in this situation. If a majority of students do not engage in the composting procedures executed with conscious efforts, the initiative then becomes worthless. Additionally, administration should caution food-packaging buyers to be cognizant of misleading labels of products and navigate “greenwashing” in which a company may claim that their products are compostable or biodegradable, but in actuality are not particularly sustainable. 

Many colleges have already instituted organic practices to confront food waste and have effectively built composting stations while exchanging their plastics and foam for compostable materials to much success. 

In 2018, design students at NC State University took to creating compostable take-out containers “​​with the entire supply chain in mind — containers that are easy to assemble, pack, eat from and dispose of.” Tsai Lu Liu, professor and department head of Graphic and Industrial Design emphasized how, “people go to a restaurant, bring home food and consume the food. Maybe you use the package for 20 or 30 minutes, and the next thing you know it goes into the trash can.” This is especially problematic as single-use plastics may take hundreds of years to decay.

Further, in an effort to advance the University of Michigan’s goal of 40% waste reduction by 2025, the university began offering compostable containers in all campus buildings during the pandemic. Alex Bryan, manager of the sustainability programs at University of Michigan Student Life noted, “We looked at like-minded institutions when considering materials and developing signage and found that solutions were not readily available elsewhere. We hope that others remain cognizant of waste reduction, waste diversion and composting efforts.” As of this fall, the program is expanding to educate students on composting as well as piloting an “Adopt a Compost Bin" program to gather student input on where the compost bins should be placed” to circumvent the possible tradeoff of further contamination.

Granted, Penn may be skeptical about enacting composting services on campus because of concerns regarding costs; however, the program at the University of Massachusetts demonstrates otherwise. In 2012, the UMass instituted compostable dining services and collection bins containing biodegradable green bags with images of acceptable materials for each bin. Moreover, the program significantly dropped waste disposal at the university by up to 3,000 fewer pounds of trash waste per day. When the University's Office of Waste Management conducted a cost analysis it found that “the cost of composting one ton of organic material averages about 35 percent less than the cost of disposing one ton of trash.” Similarly, Central Michigan University also discovered that composting in residence halls reduces landfill fees; composting is not only environmentally friendly but also cost effective. 

Similar to UMass, if Penn were to implement composting spaces across campus, visual signs are essential to depict the permissible materials that can be composted in order to avoid tampering with the compostable waste stream only to be discarded in landfills again. 

I am a transfer student from Boston College. Ever since my first year, compost bins and food containers were available at every dining hall — environmental consciousness was the norm. Noticing this stark contrast from Penn, we also have the potential to transform our waste procedures in a sustainable way. By taking necessary steps to lessen food waste, we can give back to the environment and even convert materials into biofuel, resembling Boston College’s “organic-to-energy” project.  

Ideally, transitioning to reusable food service products in all respects would present the most benefit for sustainability. But, given the common use of take-out options and bustling schedules of college students, adopting a program at Penn for compost spaces and compostable products is a crucial first step for the institution toward protecting our planet, our home. 

Earth’s point of no return is closer than we think. There’s no time to waste.

RIANE LUMER is a College junior studying political science and journalistic writing from Huntingdon Valley, P.A. Her email address is