Ambassadors for Compost at Harvard Med
August 9, 2011
The cafes at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area have separated out pre-consumer organic waste for the last five years thanks to Restaurant Associates, the company that manages HMS’s dining facilities. Restaurant Associates’ program has seen great success, diverting the majority of kitchen food-scarps to a composting facility located on a nearby farm with minimal contamination from non-organic material.
In the Fall of 2010 Harvard’s Office of Sustainability (yes, they have one of those) approached Restaurant Associates with an idea to add a post-consumer Source Separated Organics program. The initiative turned out to be complicated and challenging, but with four different groups within HMS pitching in, it has been an early success.
The Initial Idea
The students at Harvard Med don’t have a ton of free time on their hands. They attend lectures, participate in discussion groups, run a clinic, and – oh yeah – study about 60 hours every week. But somehow, a few of these elite students scrape together enough time to participate in Students for Environmental Awareness in Medicine (SEAM).
Together with Claire Berezowitz, Harvard’s Longwood Sustainability Manager, SEAM representatives decided that HMS’s next big sustainability project should be to separate out organic waste from consumers’ lunch trays, in addition to kitchen waste. Claire brought the idea to Restaurant Associates and the project began to take on legs.
Doing the Research
The first step in planning out the SSO program was to make sure it was logistically possible. Restaurant Associates helped confirm the project’s feasibility by having some infrastructure in place that would ease the transition: they owned a preexisting relationship with an organic waste hauler and already used compostable dishware.
So Claire began researching the issues involved with post-consumer composting. She spoke with other schools, including the Harvard School of Public Health, which had instituted a similar composting program, to learn what challenges HMS might face in hopes of avoiding any early stumbles other programs encountered.
Signage was certain to be an issue: consumers have historically had a difficult time figuring out what items need to be separated, so HMS knew they would need signs that were simple, but informative. The school met this problem by placing physical objects (compostable coffee cups, recyclable bottles, etc) above their respective bins to cut down on confusion.
But Claire discovered that the biggest hurdle in building their SSO program would not be creating signs or buying organics collection containers, but reaching the people who would be using the compost system the most: students. This is the biggest difference between pre-consumer SSO, where separating food waste is part of a kitchen employee’s job, and post-consumer, where people in the public are asked to change their behavior with no immediate reward. Unlike Restaurant Associates kitchen composting, there would be no way to control where the post-consumer waste ended up.
Keys to Success
Because of this crucial challenge, the Office of Sustainability worked with SEAM, in addition to Campus Operations, to get students invested in the program. SEAM members and other interested students became compost ambassadors, spreading the word among their classmates about the importance of SSO.
One of these ambassadors was Ariel Wagner, a first year medical student and SEAM member who volunteered to take shifts standing near trash cans when the composting program launched on Earth Day 2011. She and her fellow ambassadors dedicated valuable hours to help educate others on what could be composted, what couldn’t, and why.
The Office of Sustainability, Campus Operations, and SEAM also held a “food to flowers” event on Earth Day to show students the importance their composting efforts. The team gave students plant seeds and pots of soil enriched with compost from the very same farm where their food scraps would end up. Claire and her Sustainability team even collaborated with SEAM to create a short composting video that was played on strategically-placed TV screens during the program’s early stages.
The End Results
Like any new system, composting was a struggle at first as students and other cafe-goers got used to the new routine. But according to Vinnie Mazzone, Manager of Campus Operations at HMS, the contamination levels in the compost bins tailed off significantly after a week or two.
“It still takes me a few extra moments to figure out which garbage goes in which trash can,” said Bobbi Dennison, another first year student, “but even a small contribution to the environment makes it worthwhile.”
Though the program is still only a few months old, HMS already considers it such a success that the school plans to expand from two cafes into a third, and possibly even a fourth. And the success isn’t limited to campus. Inspired by the HMS program, Vinnie Mazzone has started using a backyard bin to compost at home as well. Vinnie found home composting so easy that he recommends it to everyone, cheerfully saying, “If I can do it, anyone can!”