Michigan and Composting: A Growing Culture

Aron Liebig
Release Date: 

When I first joined the U-go’s staff, the number one thing my co-workers got on me about was composting. Not my sarcasm, or my inability to go through a shift without using the restroom. It was my ignorance about composting. Every time I threw away the scraps of a Blue To Go sandwich, I was hounded with objections.

“Are you crazy, Aron?”

“Aron—what are you doing? That’s compostable!”

“Even the container?” I’d reply, dangling it over our little white trash bin.

I might’ve been a novice about waste-management, but I did know that plastics were either recycled or thrown away. I didn’t think a compostable plastic existed.   

But it does exist. Compostable plastic is made from corn starch, which is then converted into polymer. Blue To Go, who provides food to every MDining retail location, uses compostable containers for all their foods.

Initially, it shocked me that such a large university would use compostable plastic when cheaper alternatives were available. It just seemed so counterintuitive to what I understood about large organizations. They did things based on the bottom-line. Not the good of society.

Through research, I discovered the University of Michigan’s focus on composting is part of its Zero Waste Program, an empowering initiative tasked with reducing the amount of waste our campus send to landfills. The program was established in 2011, and citing our campus need to be greener, had the goal of cutting trash volume across our University by 40% before 2025.

The Zero Waste Program’s biggest issue has been getting people to rethink waste-management. In 2011, University of Michigan sent 35%  of its waste to landfills unnecessarily. Things like food scraps, paper cups, and napkins were being trashed instead of composted. To be effective, Zero Waste needed to communicate the seriousness and importance waste-reduction on campus.

And the U-M community, especially MDining, has responded. In addition to the compostable containers used by Blue To Go, compostable utensils, straws, cups, napkins, and lids for sodas and coffees are now used in all their cafes, restaurants and markets. Over 34 U-M buildings offer bins for students and faculty to compost their waste. All of the food scraps, pre-, and post-consumption that MDining produces are given to the We Care Organics facility. The scraps are then turned to compost and reused to help fertilize soil, allowing our student-farmers to grow and plant produce at Mathei Botanical Garden.

The willingness of MDining leaders to buy-in and reduce their waste has trickled down. We, the student-employees, are some of the most vigilant waste-reducers, often educating each new generation of workers. As a collective, we want our school to be as low waste as possible. It’s something we take great pride in.

A year has past since I began working at U-Go’s. It’s mostly the same job as it was before. I work register nine times out of ten. I still can’t go a shift without using the restroom. The only big difference is that when I finish a Blue to Go Sandwich, or a coffee, my co-workers don’t have to correct me. I’m part of the MDining community, and that means I know where to throw my cup.

Aron Liebig is a Senior at the University of Michigan, pursuing degrees in Sports Management and Creative Writing. He is a content contributor focused on helping MDining increase awareness of sustainable practices on campus.