A Bin in Every Classroom: Why Tulane Should Lead on Composting

I asked a peer, Isabel, for her thoughts on composting:  


“Why do you think composting is important?”   

“It’s good for the environment,” Isabel replied.   

“Can you elaborate?”   

“Not really,” she responded.  


Composting turns organic waste, such as food scraps, into fertilizer. Composting is a necessary and tangible step to minimize the timely and catastrophic event occurring every second on earth: global warming. Just this past summer, we experienced the hottest three months recorded in history. The earth’s temperature has increased by about 2* F since 1880, with the rate of temperature increase almost doubling since 1981. When food is sent to the landfill, it decomposes anaerobically—without sufficient access to oxygen—which makes the decomposition process produce methane and other greenhouse gases. Composting allows organic matter to decompose aerobically, leading to less greenhouse gas emissions. Methane gas, and other greenhouse gases released from food waste, contribute significantly to climate change because, once released, they trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Food waste produces more methane than all other landfill materials due to how quickly food decays. 

Composting on Tulane’s campus must be more widely discussed, understood, and implemented. Wasting food is something everyone does, often multiple times a day, whether it is throwing away old leftovers, or tossing the scraps of dinner one did not get to. It is an issue that every member of our community can contribute to helping and that is someday going to affect everyone individually. Composting and food waste reduction habits can be implemented around Tulane’s campus and influence the choices students make the rest of their lives. The issue of waste reduction is a serious environmental challenge, but also an opportunity for students to have a sense of agency over the coming climate effects. Tulane should provide the resources to allow students to do this. 

Information on Tulane’s composting protocols is present but sparse.  According to the Tulane website, students can bring their compost to a weekly drop-off point on campus. Realistically, though, how many students are dragging their compost across campus between classes? I’ve never seen it. Tulane also claims that it composts excess food waste in the dining halls.   

This information made me wonder: Is Tulane actually composting in their kitchens? I decided to check it out myself.   

I started in the LBC, Tulane’s food court. I asked a woman checking students out if there was a compost for students. She responded, “A compost? I can’t tell you. Go to the information desk.” 

I asked a worker at Tulane Hillel, a non-profit community center and restaurant off-campus, if they compost. She said, “What’s that?” 

At Commons, a Tulane Dining Services employee had the same response: “What’s that?”  

I asked if I could speak with a chef, and she kindly connected me to Jon Petrie, Commons’ executive chef. He explained how composting is implemented in the Commons: the only food scraps composted are fruits and vegetable scraps, and students do not have the option to compost themselves. Everything he said aligned with what Tulane states on its website. However, Tulane leaves out that only fruits and vegetables are composted, rather than most other food served in the dining halls. The website also omits to disclose that students cannot participate in any form of composting in the dining halls.  

Tulane’s efforts seemed underwhelming, granted the number of resources. However, I considered that I grew up in San Francisco, which is the first larger city to provide residents with composting services and where composting is integrated into all parts of daily life. 

In San Francisco, separating your compost, recycling, and trash is mandatory. The city provides all residents with a green can (compost), black can (trash), and blue can (recycling), which are picked up weekly outside of one’s home or business. The green composting bins are for soiled paper, food, and plants. The contents of the bins are then transformed into nutrient-rich soil distributed to local farms.   

From a young age, children learn in school about composting practices. Students learn the benefits, correct execution, and rewarding feeling of participating in a greater movement.   

At my high school, Marin Academy, students were expected to separate food and waste at the end of lunch period. Students were expected to hold friends accountable and remind them to compost and only take what they can eat. These norms seem idyllic relative to the current protocols on Tulane’s campus.   

I contacted Liz Gottlieb, an environmental science and biology teacher at my high school. She argued that privileged institutions like Tulane should serve as a model for society’s aspirations. The institution can be the experiment, and we are the leaders within. As a community, we must continue improving our practices, critiquing our system, and allowing ourselves to fail. This is a difficult task and to mistakes along the way, but moving forward after failure is necessary because each addition to the system produces more substantial outcomes along the way.   

I understand that New Orleans has a much less robust composting system than San Francisco, so implementing a successful one on campus will be more challenging. Additionally, Tulane’s student body, drawing from 43 states, means students come to campus with a wide range of prior knowledge about this issue. Some students are taught from a young age the importance, practice, and benefits of composting. Others need to be educated or encouraged to take part.   

Yet Tulane has the resources, capacity, and intelligence to make the campus serve as a role model for the greater New Orleans community. We can implement this by:  

  • Education: Include composting practices in the first-year students’ orientation. Have more signs across campus indicating composting practices and locations. Create an informational training guide on the Tulane website and link additional resources for students and community members.  
  • Relationships: Work with composting services that allow composting more than just fruits and vegetable scraps.  
  • Access: Give students an accessible chance to compost themselves. Leave compost bins in every dorm, dining hall, classroom, and walkways.   
  • Gardens: Offer more service options for creating new composting gardens around campus. 

Students are bound to make mistakes when deciding what to compost, but Tulane needs to allow students to do so. Limited options to compost prevent students from learning from their mistakes to execute correctly in the future and eventually feel comfortable holding their peers accountable.   

San Francisco is a model for the country, but Tulane can be, too.   


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