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Campus Catering turns to composting to eliminate table trash

August 27, 2015

When Michael Edmondson started working at Campus Catering eight years ago, there was little recycling infrastructure in place and almost no composting to speak of.

Among some of the notable improvements made by Campus Catering over the past five years is the transition from using plastic water bottles, sometimes as many as 3,000 per week at events, to refillable jug dispensers and compostable cups. Additionally, nearly all post-event waste is now kept out of landfills, with 90% being composted. Just five years ago, nearly 100% of post-event waste went to landfills.

“Back then the focus was more on efficiency,” said Edmondson, the current general manager of Campus Catering.

“At the end of many of our events we would simply take everything: non-compostable plates, forks, styrofoam soup bowls, water bottles, cans...even the tablecloths; and just throw it all away for a quick and easy cleanup.”

Edmondson knew that this model could not be good for the environment but was unsure how to change it without hurting business. That is, until he began attending some industry conferences during his first two years.

“As I started seeing how other campus catering businesses were aligning with their university sustainability initiatives I realized we were way behind,” said Edmondson. “That needed to change.”

On advice from some of the other conference attendees, Edmondson began researching compostable wares and reusable or recyclable products at national trade shows. He discovered that the cost for these biodegradable utensils was actually comparable to the old wares, sometimes even cheaper. Encouraged, he began working with Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant employees Al Matyasovsky, former program manager of Central Support Services, and Nadine Davitt, current supervisor of recycling and refuse, to create a more sustainable system for Campus Catering.

“Working with Al and Nadine has been great,” said Edmondson. “They were instrumental in bringing us to where we are today.”

Today, Penn State operates a new waste management program, möbius, with the goal to divert 85% of solid waste from the landfill through the addition of campus-wide composting and recycling miscellaneous plastics. Möbius serves every building and everyone at University Park.

“Even the bags we use to collect the waste are compostable now,” said Edmondson.

“It’s great. We [Campus Catering] operate at close to net-zero waste with just as much business as ever.”

Despite these successes, there have been some challenges to the change. Since Campus Catering works a variety of events (3,000+ per year), they can’t always use only compostable or recyclable wares. They are also required to fulfill client requests and some choose to pay extra for non-compostable wares due to concerns about aesthetic appeal and durability for their event. However, according to Edmondson the changes have been fairly well-received, with many of his clients happy to be “doing the right thing for the environment” at their events.

Edmondson advises other commonwealth units or anyone catering an event to consider switching to compostable wares as the expanding market has led to the production of newer, more durable and aesthetic products. He also encourages collaboration with local Green Team members and interested Office of Physical Plant employees.

“Working with people who care about sustainability has been incredibly helpful in our trial and error process of becoming a more sustainable business,” said Edmondson.

Interested parties can find more information at www.campuscatering.psu.edu. For more details about möbius, visit sustainability.psu.edu/mobius.

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