It Ain't Easy Being Green; UMd. Student Paper Notes Trouble with Biodegradable Carryout Boxes

The liberal mainstream media have a penchant for hyping all manner of "green" technology advances while ignoring their drawbacks and opportunity costs.

Perhaps they could learn a few lessons from some University of Maryland student writers for the Diamondback such as Erin Egan.

[For full disclosure, I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2001 and wrote columns for the Diamondback when a student there.]

Writing in yesterday's paper, Egan detailed the failures of the university dining halls' move to biodegradable carry-out containers made from bagasse, a byproduct of sugar cane processing:

Dining halls now use carry-out containers made with bagasse, a waste-product of sugarcane that is 100 percent compostable. Dining Services switched products because plastic foam does not recycle well, Assistant Director of Dining Services Bart Hipple said.


But students said they don't know how or where to compost the bagasse containers, and officials said they had trouble finding an efficient method of converting them into a suitable composted product.


The university's composting activity decreased substantially from 2008 to 2009, according to the most recent Sustainability Report. Hipple said the decline occurred because the company that was supposed to pick up the material was unreliable, forcing Dining Services to throw otherwise compostable products in the trash.


But Hipple said they have since hired a new company to haul food waste, bagasse containers, drink cups and compostable soup bowls to a processing center on the Eastern Shore.


But of the 40,000 bagasse containers used on the campus per week, Hipple said it is hard to know how many are actually being composted.


"I would hope that they're all being composted, but I'm not sure enough to guarantee that," Hipple said. "Our staff is trained to know what is supposed to be composted and what is not, so hopefully they are composting them, too."


But Dining Services' efforts may be falling on deaf ears. Many students said they barely notice the extra charge for take-out containers, and despite marked composting bins designated for bagasse containers inside the Dining Hall on North Campus, many said they weren't aware the containers were meant to be disposed of differently.


"I think that if the to-go boxes are compostable, it should be labeled, or at least written somewhere for students to know," Sara Sousa, a sophomore cell biology and genetics major said. "I feel like if I had known, I would definitely toss them out in the appropriate bins. Every time I take a to-go box, I simply throw it in the regular garbage."


Erin Kersell, sophomore environmental science and policy major, agreed she would compost her containers if she knew how to do it correctly.


"I'm never sure what's supposed to be composted, so I just don't compost anything," she said. "I don't want to put the wrong things in the composting cans - I feel like that might do more damage."


Officials, however, aren't too concerned that many of these containers end up in garbage cans - Manager of the Office of Sustainability Mark Stewart said even if the bagasse containers aren't composted, the paper-like product will break down no matter where it is, though the process takes longer in a landfill.




Hipple said Dining Services originally hoped to use a machine that would turn compostable waste material into a product used to enrich soil on the campus. But Dining Services piloted the program and found the machines couldn't process the high quantities of waste generated by the large campus.


But shipping the materials to be composted at another site is more expensive, and officials still discourage students from using any to-go containers unless absolutely necessary.

In February of last year, other Diamondback reporters noted the potential problems that would arise from adopting the bagasse carryout boxes (emphases mine):

While Dining Services spokesman Bart Hipple said he believed the compostable materials were sorted from the rest of trash, workers at The Diner and Greg Thompson, assistant director of Dining Services maintenance, confirmed that the bags from these trash cans aren't sorted and are just thrown into dumpsters.


Even during the day when the conveyor belts run, many students still don't return the containers to the dining halls, either because they don't know they're supposed to or because it's too much of a hassle.


"It's a stupid system," said sophomore kinesiology major Alana Isaacon. "Chances are, you're going to do what's convenient and throw it out."


Hipple also questioned how realistic the idea of students bringing back the containers is.


"I can't picture myself bringing things back to the dining hall," he said.


Dining Services launched a marketing campaign asking students to return the containers for proper disposal, but it has thus far consisted only of passing out bulletin board materials to resident assistants.


"I didn't even know we were supposed to return them," said freshman engineering major Sean Hamzehee.


Hipple said there should be posters and table tents in each of the dining halls by Friday, more than a month after the program began. He also added that advertisements on Shuttle-UM busses will come out Feb. 21.


Freshman mathematics major Kristina Delacruz said placing bins in dorm lounges would be a more effective method of collection. This proposition, however, is more complicated than it seems.


"It creates this pest problem," said Carol Turner, executive administrative assistant for residential facilities. She said there are also specific fire regulations that would prevent bins for the compostable trays in the dorms.


Turner added that Residential Facilities is working with the Department of Resident Life and Dining Services to reach a conclusion.


College campuses, particularly those in liberal states like Maryland, are filled with left-leaning idealists, but their well-intentioned environmental practices don't always pan out quite like expected in the daily grind of real life.

Kudos to the Diamondback for noting and reporting these difficulties. Perhaps the mainstream media could learn a lesson from these student journalists.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.