Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Dining halls recycle everything from boxes to burgers

DU campus Sodexo Director of Operations Nori Yamashita and his big folder of recycling-related information. Yamashita even carries a chart of Colorado’s harvest seasons so he knows what’s available fresh locally.

If you’re not going to finish that hamburger, there are some plants across campus that might want a taste.

Last fall, two University of Denver dining halls took recycling a step beyond paper and plastic. At students’ urging, campus food service provider Sodexo moved into “food recycling” of a sort. That doesn’t mean reusing leftovers, it means composting: turning food waste into nutrient-rich soil for trees and plants. Some of the very soil DU bought for its plantings could be the product of its composting program.  

Everything in Centennial and Nelson dining halls now goes into big composting bins — every scrap of food, every napkin and even the “plastic” drinking straws, which are actually made of biodegradable material.

DU campus Sodexo Director of Operations Nori Yamashita says he often gets inspiration from students interested in making campus more sustainable. With each idea, he adds more pamphlets and papers to his thick “sustainability folder,” which is full of catalogues, vendor lists and price guides.

“Working on college campuses for 35 years, sometimes I forget how old I am,” Yamashita says with a smile. “I get challenged by the students to do more. They keep me tuned in to what the current issues and concerns are. I hear what they are talking about, then I try to make changes they want.”

Biology major Erin Hough spent her junior year working with Yamashita as a student liaison. The experience, she says, was rewarding and educational.

“I came at it with all these ideas about what needed to happen and ways to make changes, and at first I was really frustrated with the way change is accomplished within a big business,” Hough says. “I had to learn how to work within a company to make positive changes. This was difficult at first, but now that I’ve learned about the process, I think I’m much better prepared to take on environmental issues in other big companies.”

The idea of composting sounded feasible to Yamashita, but nothing is ever as easy as it sounds. There were a host of obstacles to overcome. Finding a “single stream” composting company — one that doesn’t require the extra step of separating proteins from fruits and vegetables — was finally overcome when Alpine Waste Solutions offered to haul single-stream compost. Diners can dump everything from their plates into one container, even wooden stir sticks for coffee.

Composting areas like the one above have been set up inside two DU dining halls.

The waste is collected, composted, and then sold as nutrient rich compost for landscaping. Some of DU’s own food waste has probably wound up back on campus.

But Yamashita says that for every advance, there’s always an obstacle. The latest he found is plastic. Those little, individually wrapped packets of crackers are wrapped in non-compostable plastic. Next, he says, the staff has to figure a way around that, possibly by buying crackers in bulk, unwrapped. It’s just another challenge to overcome.

Making the dining halls more sustainable is an effort fraught with such challenges, Yamashita says. With the push now toward more locally grown and organic products, Yamashita says he’s found a whole new crop of obstacles. DU does obtain about 19 percent of its dining hall food from Colorado sources, including locally baked rolls, milk and dairy products, and beef from the northeastern plains. But the popularity of such items makes just getting quality food to the table a challenge. He carries a chart of the state’s agricultural products and harvest seasons, but entire crops are sometimes already spoken for by large retailers before they’re even planted, and small farmers can’t keep up with the campus’ big appetite.   

For April’s Earth Day dinner, Hough says the dining halls were able to serve meals that were 100 percent local and organic, a big undertaking.

“Student response was unbelievably positive, and we’re looking to make the Earth Day Dinner an annual event,” she says. “For me, it’s encouraging because if we can provide an entirely local/organic meal, there’s no reason we can’t slowly incorporate responsible purchasing into every meal served at DU.”

“We are always interested to hear the ideas from the students,” Yamashita says. “We research everything they come to us with, we’re always exploring, and we do what we can to find what solutions we can come up with.”


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