by Zachary Dinerstein
If you’ve wandered through the Park School parking lot the last few weeks, or passed the pond by the access road on a windy day, you may have wondered to yourself, “What in the holy hell is that smell?” As a journalist, I felt the need find an answer.
I found the smell emanating from two rotting towers of garbage covered in flies, slowly turning itself into compost. When looking at a pile of garbage that massive, the biggest question that comes to mind is, “Where did it all come from?”
I went to a campus dining hall to find out.
“Of 1,000 portions made for roughly 1,000 students a night, the Campus Center usually trashes less than twenty,” says Jeff Scott, the general manager of the Campus Center Dining Hall. “We prepare food for our forecast … and usually, we’re pretty dead on.”
Adam Trabka, an IC alumus, worked at the Campus Center dining hall for four years. As a student manager, he saw a lot of food come through the dining hall.
“I wouldn’t say the Campus Center is wasteful,” he says. “On an average night, we might throw out three pounds of food. For the most part, I’d say we hit the mark pretty well.” Where the problem lies is with the students.
According to Julie Roberts, a student chef at the Terraces Dining Hall, the cooks can only do so much. Then it’s up to the students to make an effort to conserve.
“I do it, too,” says Roberts, on over-piling her plate in the dining halls. “But you need to make that conscious decision to say ‘no.’” The most waste she sees comes from the food that students take, but don’t get around to eating.
“That’s a ton of food,” Roberts says. “That’s the waste.”
So maybe the answer to this problem lies not in cutting back on what the dining halls prepare, but in curbing students’ eating habits.
“People usually leave just a little bit of food on their plate,” she says. “But that little bit adds up. You’ve just got to be conscious about it.”
Jacob Engle’s hands are the ones you see through the dish-room cubbyhole most nights, grabbing half-empty trays and soiled silverware. In the dish room of the Campus Center, he clears off food from students’ plates, draining glasses of grape juice into a large, 32-gallon plastic bucket. The bucket he dumps the food into is rectangular and red. Its rim rises halfway up his thigh. It’s propped on wheels because, once filled, it’ll be too heavy to lift. At 5:30, the dining hall has been serving dinner for one hour, and the bucket is already half-full with partially eaten cheeseburgers, torn slices of pizza and splashes of discarded soup.
“Come back and see it at the end of the night,” he says.
At 7:00 the bucket is completely full. Beyond the kitchen at the “loading dock,” sits another container identical to this one. Other containers in the room contain scraps from the prep kitchen or old food left over from the day’s line that aren’t more than halfway full. The two that hold the leftovers from the students’ dinners are filled right to the top. And this is a Sunday. According to Engle, on a weekday the amount of wasted food would be double.
Back in the front of the cafeteria, I stand, notebook in hand, against the wall and watch as students bring their unused food to the dish room. An uneaten slab of ham, a plate of sweet potato fries, half of a mixed salad, a gouged piece of vanilla cake, a completely untouched ham sandwich, half of an egg salad sandwich, and a pizza slice with one bite taken from it are among the things that make their way into Engle’s hands.
“Anything returned to the dish room,” says Scott, “goes to compost.”
It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday, and I’m driving down the access road towards Rogan’s Corner. The rows of trees have just started to bud for the upcoming spring months, and the wind is making little waves in the pond on the side of the road.
I’m following the smell of rotting garbage. Just past the Parking and Traffic Station is a sign with an arrow pointing left and below it are printed the words “Compost Facility.”
The shed looms huge and green in the middle of a grove of trees. Attached to the right of the shed is an office used by the compost workers on their lunch breaks. Inside, it looks like any other office, until you turn toward the wall covered by a row of stained windows, which frame a shed the size of an airplane hanger. In the hanger is a mammoth pile of rotting garbage, roughly 100 meters long.
Though the windows are thick, the smell from the compost heap permeates the office, and the workers keep a cardboard box filled with different bottles of perfumes by the door. One of them, a peach bottle labeled with only a picture of an Indian in full headdress, lies amongst the English Leather Aftershave, Undeniable For Men, and Hawk by Mennen. I take a spray from Indian-in-a-headdress, which smells thick and musty, and head out the door.
Around the side of the office is the entrance to the compost shed. Feeling quite confident with my Indian-in-a-headress perfume, I walk inside. The blast of sour vomit is overpowering, causing my nose to crinkle and eyes to water. From here I can see the piles are literally steaming. They’re also crawling with what must be thousands of flies. This gives a whole new meaning to the word “recycling.”
This compost does get put back into campus once springtime roles around, helping to nourish the flowers we see, ever so briefly in late April, back to health. But according to Charlie Ziemer, a utility worker at the compost facility, the process to turn out good, usable fertilizer takes two years.
Each day a truck delivers two dumpsters filled with food from the three dining halls on campus. The dumpsters are four yards long, about the size of a small tank on wheels. After they drop off their payloads, the workers let the garbage sit in the shed for about a year until its consistency is “like mashed potatoes,” said Ziemer. “Not too dry, not too wet.”
The men add wood chips, paper shavings, dried leaves, hay, straw or anything that’s carbon based to the piles to speed up decomposition. The breakdown of carbon adds heat, says Ziemer, and the piles can reach up to 150 degrees in the summer.
After the compost decomposes for roughly a year, it’s run through a “screener,” a metal-screened sphere roughly two yards in diameter. The screener spins the compost, separating the woodchips, paper and stray forks from the usable fertilizer, which is then taken outside and left for an additional year.
As the new heap, now about the size of two elephants, swelters and freezes through the seasons, it streams a dark trail of murky sludge down into the “tea pond.” Workers say ducks and other birds often swim and drink from the garbage run-off, but that the brown water can’t hurt them.
When the leftover food has sat in the sun for another 12 months, it gets broken down into its final stage – a black soot that resembles thousands of tiny wood shavings.
“Now,” says Ziemer, digging a hand into the pile and bringing the scoop up to his nose. “It only smells like dirt.”
Because IC’s brand of fertilizer is so rich in salt from the dining halls, it needs to be specially mixed so it won’t harm the plants it’s supposed to help grow.
“But when it is mixed correctly,” says Ziemer, “the plants shoot up like they’ve been placed next to a nuclear power plant.”
Though the fertilizer is locally renowned for its strength, if this symbol isn’t a call to conserve, I don’t know what is. Two years to decompose and get rid of that smell — a smell not just of rotting garbage or of decomposition or of flies covered in dirt, but of waste, pure and simple.
Zachary Dinerstein is a super-senior Planned Studies major who follows his nose wherever it goes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.