Column: GW should make composting more accessible to enhance sustainability

When I first came to GW this August, I was shocked to find only two main options to dispose of waste on campus – trash and recycling. I searched for an option to compost across campus but only found student volunteers collecting waste from their peers at inconvenient hours and scant locations. While GW has pledged its commitment to sustainability, composting remains a fundamental piece missing from its approach. We need a culture in which people are more conscious of their own waste at GW, and providing them with easy access to compost bins can help create it. Making compost bins as accessible as trash and recycling around campus would allow GW to significantly reduce the amount of waste that it sends to landfills and reduce the carbon footprint of the University.

After growing up with composting bins on every corner in California, I was expecting the same kind of accessibility here in D.C. Living in a state where wildfires run rampant and droughts are nearly constant has taught me to be mindful of how daily practices, like tossing food scraps and other compostable materials in the trash, can damage the planet. But not every student has this outlook on sustainability, nor are they educated about composting and its potential to curb excess emissions should we utilize it properly. Without this environmental awareness and unless officials place opportunities to compost right in front of us, students are not going to make the effort to learn about our composting system – let alone use it.

So what does it mean to compost? Compost is organic material consisting mainly of food and yard waste that can be added to soil to help cultivate plants. Single-use household products like paper towels, cleaning wipes and tissues are compostable, as is the cardboard from packages, many paper grocery and produce bags, napkins and sometimes even paper products and utensils from restaurants. These products belong in compost facilities where they can be repurposed as fertilizer, not in the trash heap.

Such landfills are the country’s third largest producer of methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, which contributes heavily to global warming. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that food loss and waste generate about eight to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions when methane-producing bacteria decompose without oxygen in landfills. Composting practices balance the ratio of nitrogen to carbon dioxide, while also providing aeration and moisture, which significantly limits the greenhouse gas emissions of compost.

The University’s composting system has a very small impact on reducing trash. Students can drop off their compost at the GW Compost table at Kogan Plaza, which has started operating six days a week this fall after running on a weekly schedule since 2018. Depending on the day, students have a one- to three-hour window to drop off their compost to be transferred to the proper facility. While I can appreciate the option for students to compost, it feels as if the University is simply throwing a bone to appease the environmentalists on campus without achieving any actual, campus-wide change. If officials were interested in actively limiting the trash waste, then compost bins would be just as accessible as garbage cans across campus.

If it’s easier to toss waste in the trash or recycling than in the compost bin, then students won’t go out of their way to compost. Those with the willpower to compost their waste might collect their food scraps and store it in their room until they have the time to walk their bag of rotting food to the Kogan Plaza table. But for students who live on the Mount Vernon Campus, the journey to Kogan will hardly ever be worth it.

GW should provide students with freely accessible compost bins, especially in residence halls, dining venues and other food-handling locations with the highest volume of potential compost. Two compost bins are currently stationed on campus at District House and the University Student Center, but they should be just as widespread as trash cans, located in every building on every floor. As for the removal and transportation of compost, GW can partner with local nonprofits like Compost Crew, which collects food scraps from homes, businesses and schools and transfers them to proper management facilities around the DMV.

Accessibility to compost facilities and better education on the importance of composting around campus can help GW become a more sustainable school. The University needs to encourage students to change their daily practices to limit greenhouse gas emissions and avoid overflowing landfills. Considering the fact that a University-wide change reaches tens of thousands of students, even a small shift in attitudes and behaviors can be incredibly beneficial in reducing the amount of waste GW produces. The more waste students divert from landfills, the better chance we have of preserving the environment we call home.

Anaya Bhatt, a freshman majoring in political communications, is an opinions writer.

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