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In 2024, sustainability is taking a major leap forward at SUNY Potsdam. 

Food waste previously destined for the landfill will now be composted at Whitten Family Farms—and in the process the College will be saving money and making a positive impact on the environment. 

Paige Brown ’24 attaches a poster with information about the composting process to one of the new bins in the Barrington Student Union.

The new bins have slots for trash, recycling, and compost.

Harper Barrett ’24 sorts through waste in the new bins to make sure it's being placed in the correct slot.

Grace Romer ’24 attaches a poster with information about the composting process to one of the new bins in the Barrington Student Union.

To make it a reality, Dr. Jessica Pearson and five of her students from the Department of Environmental Studies who are also completing a minor in sustainability, will be helping to change the way the campus community handles food waste on campus. As the Spring 2024 semester gets underway, Harper Barrett ’24, Mary Keating ’24, Paige Brown ’24, Grace Romer ’24 and Cameron Rogers ’26 will be stationed at the Barrington Student Union during mealtimes to educate students, faculty and staff about the new composting procedures as they help to implement one the most significant sustainability initiatives in the history of the College. 

“One of the big things I’m hoping the students will learn as they’re helping the campus figure out what goes into the compost, is how difficult it is to get people to change their behavior. Do you tell them the facts? Do you provide them with examples? Do you do it for them? Or is there a way to change the culture on our campus where it’s just an expectation? The students have been well educated through environmental studies and sustainability on strategies for how to get people to change their behavior. I’m hoping they are going to get a chance to see that in real-time.”

Dr. Jessica Pearson Associate Professor & Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies

In 2023, Pearson and Dr. Page Quinton secured a $40,000 grant through the Arconic Foundation to support two initiatives. The first is spearheaded by Quinton to fund diversity in STEM by creating community outreach events for middle and high school students at the College. The second is being led by Pearson as she helps to redesign the College’s food management system. As part of Pearson’s composting strategy, six new bins, with three separate containers for compost, trash, and recycling, have been purchased for the PACES dining facilities on campus. The process will start with four composting bins being placed in the Barrington Student Union, before adding additional bins to the Performing Arts Center café and Becky’s Place later in the semester.

Mary Keating ’24 attaches a poster with information about the composting process to one of the new bins in the Barrington Student Union.

Grace Romer ’24 tapes a poster to a wall in the Barrington Student Union food court, with information about the new composting process.

Paige Brown ’24 attaches a poster with information about the composting process to a door at the entrance to the Barrington Student Union food court.

“PACES has been an amazing partner through this whole process. Part of the project for the Introduction to Sustainability class is to find a problem on our campus and figure out how to fix it sustainably, and the food waste component has been something that has building for the last five years, to figure out how to change this."

Dr. Jessica Pearson

More than just goodwill and a project for the sustainability minor, the five students are also ensuring that the College adheres to a new state law, the Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Law, that now requires institutions generating more than two tons of food waste to donate extra food from the kitchen, and recycle all remaining food scraps if located within 25 miles of a composting facility. Since the beginning of 2023, Whitten Farm has been collaborating with the College to collect pre-consumer food waste (food scraps from the kitchen), and now phase two will usher in campus-wide composting practices. “It turns out it will probably cost 20 percent less than what they would take away to the garbage. It’s a win-win. We get to compost the waste instead of having it sit in bags in the landfill, and it costs us less,” Pearson said.

To help determine if SUNY Potsdam fell under the umbrella of the New York State law, Pearson and a separate team of four sustainability minors conducted a food audit on campus in the Spring of 2023. The weeklong audit allowed them to collect leftover food scraps from campus to help estimate the total food waste generated. “They basically measured every meal that went in and out of the kitchen for five straight days, and it turns out that we do generate more than two tons in a week. It came out to, on average, that every person on campus generates 40 pounds of food waste per semester,” Pearson said.

Michael Amell ’23, a biochemistry major with a minor in sustainability, pours food waste into a bin for composting as part of the 2023 food audit on campus.

Similar audits were conducted by Clarkson University, Paul Smith’s College, St. Lawrence University and SUNY Plattsburgh last year, all working to meet the mandates of the new law. “We used last year to get ready, and now we need to change the behavior on campus because this is happening,” Pearson said. 

In addition to educating people at the dining facilities about the new procedures, the five sustainability students will be tasked with checking the compost before it goes to the farm. “Even a little bit of plastic, or a little bit of product that we can’t send to the composter, changes both the price and the quality. If we send them compost that isn’t clean, with plastic forks in it, they’re basically taking our garbage rather than taking our compost, and so it gets charged differently,” Pearson said. 

Once at the farm, just 15 miles from campus, large rows of compost will undergo a transformation this spring with microorganisms, bacteria, insects, and oxygen breaking down the food scraps as they’re mixed with brown organic material like leaves and grass clippings. At the end of the process, bags of perfect fertilizer will be sold locally to farmers and gardeners as they bolster their crop production. 

“Compost will not freeze in the winter, it just continues to break down, but you need to have a big enough and hot enough area, and so the Whittens are very excited that we’re able to generate this extra stream to composting,” Pearson said. “There is significant machinery involved to aerate it and rotate it, so it breaks down, but the process should take fewer than six weeks from pickup to producible compost, although it slows down in the winter.”

Back on campus, Pearson and her sustainability students will continue to build on the campus initiative over the coming years, with plans to implement the use of compostable utensils in the future—continuing to make a positive impact on the environment and campus. “We already use paper plates for the most part, and napkins that can be composted if you have a big enough industrial system, so we could make the entire process compostable in the future,” Pearson said. “The big thing for our students is having this applied learning experience and really seeing what they’re capable of doing, and the lasting impact that they’re creating.”

Article and photos by Jason Hunter