Long-standing food waste issue remains prominent on campus, students work towards solution

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Maddie Hamilton / The Bucknellian

Jaxon White, Editor in Chief

Bucknell Dining Services uses about 585 tons of raw food per year in campus’s dining locations; but roughly 146 tons of prepared food is wasted by students and faculty dumping meals in the trash, according to Parkhurst Resident District Manager Carlos Soza.

Because Dining Services must make sure they don’t run out of food, they are often forced to over prepare, Soza said. But with Dining’s current practices, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code restricts it from using any trashed food or donating it to animal farms. All of it ends up in landfills. 

Under the Food Code, anything that isn’t set out for service is able to be repurposed for other meals, which Soza said happens often at Bucknell. Proteins such as chicken and pork are reused for salad and pizza toppings. 

A group of students believe they can turn the wasted food into a renewable biofuel for campus.

Past and present processes

The Bucknell community has been combating food waste problems for years. It was the reason Bostwick began their trayless program in 2011, which reduced waste by 150 pounds per day, and it inspired a number of honors theses around that same year. 

Food waste is not only a Bucknell issue. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2018 Wasted Food Report found roughly 7.2 million tons was wasted by the national institutional sector that year, but less than one million tons of that is attributed to colleges and universities. Two-thirds of the total waste ended up in landfills. 

In his 20 years at Bucknell, Biology Professor Steve Jordan has seen these recent changes but isn’t sure they are substantial enough on the school’s behalf.  

“Sometimes progress is made, but it often feels like it’s token progress,” Jordan said. “One of the interesting things at Bucknell is I feel like the administration knows they can outwait students….so often there’s just this long stalling game.” 

Jordan commended the school for the creation of the Bucknell Farm, but said many of his colleagues are demoralized because they have asked for other environmentally friendly programs that have been rejected. 

“If certain administrators don’t want to see something happen, it just won’t happen,” he said. “I feel like that’s been the case for a biodigester for proper composting of food waste.”

Bucknell maintains a biodigester on campus, but it only processes food that was not touched by consumers. According to the sustainable dining webpage, it “converts consumer food waste to gray water that is then sent to a water treatment plant, removing the waste from a landfill.” 

Bucknell’s wastewater goes to Lewisburg Area Joint Sewer Authority for treatment, where Manager Todd Oberdorf said the gray water is processed through their biodigester and sent to local farms as fertilizer. Jordan said he feels “a little bit misled” by the university’s description of the process, and that he has a lot of questions based on their claim. 

“Often [the waste] can’t be used because it’s full of toxins and things we flushed down the toilet or not good to put on our fields,” Jordan said. It could just end up in a landfill anyway. 

Possibility of anaerobic digestion

One group of students is working to bring an anaerobic digester to Bucknell through their senior design project. The machine would use bacteria to break down organic matter and turn it into a number of potential energy producers, including methane. 

Calista Noll ’23, Sarah Frischmann ’23 and Henry Novicki ’23 said their machine would take both pre-consumer and post-consumer food waste and degrade it into biogas. That gas would power itself and potentially heat campus buildings. 

“It’s definitely something that has just a lot of positive impacts because it’s reducing food waste on campus and at the same time it’s generating electricity to help power buildings on campus,” Noll said. “But then it also can positively impact the farm, the fertilizer so there’s a lot of like components that are beneficial rather than negative.” 

The group said reaction from professors has been positive, with many saying they’d consider using the potential biodigestor as a living-learning space. Next the group needs to pitch the idea to the President’s Sustainability Council and hear their feedback. Looking at other universities has proven helpful for the group. 

Dickinson College, a private institution in Central Pa., turns their waste into reusable energy on campus through anaerobic digestion. The school uses that energy to power the same farm it gathers its organic material from. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s report shows that 14 percent of the institutional waste nationwide was put through co-digestion/anaerobic digestion. 

“It benefits a local community and it benefits the overall health of a school just by eliminating any waste leaving campus and then utilize it as a classroom for campus when we can take classes there,” Novicki said. 

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