As far as David Petree knows, Guilford College is one of the only colleges or universities — hell, one of the only institutions — that keeps nearly all food waste out of a landfill. Petree, the director of environmental sustainability at the college, said that about half of the food waste generated in the cafeteria is composted while the rest goes into a Food Waste Digester machine that he referred to as a “stainless-steel, kitchen-grade stomach.”
The machine, which can break down up to 600 pounds of food in a day, is leased from Waste Industries and relies on organisms to break the stuff down. The discharge is piped into the school’s grease trap and actually improves grease build up, flies and odors.
Even for a small college like Guilford that trumpets environmental stewardship and specifically focuses on food-waste reduction by removing trays — like Greensboro College and others — and educating students, it still created almost 17,000 pounds of food waste last year, and Petree noted that despite common beliefs, that food wouldn’t actually rot in a landfill if the school still sent it there.
The composted food waste and leaf mold — made from fallen leaves across campus — are used for landscaping around the college, allowing Guilford to be almost petroleum-fertilizer free.
And then there’s the farm. It’s been about three years since Guilford opened a campus farm, and it’s not only sustainable environmentally, but financially, Petree said. Roughly half of the food grown on a two-acre plot goes to the school’s cafeteria, with the rest sold to upscale local restaurants like Josephine’s and Lucky 32; Bestway and Deep Roots Market stores; at farmers’ markets at Guilford and in the Sticks & Stones parking lot; and through CSA shares.
There’s a laundry list of other initiatives — an energy audit that led to upgraded lighting, improved insulation and high-efficiency windows; a 62-panel solar-thermal array assisting with hot-water needs; low-volume showerheads, motion sensors that turn of lights — but Petree said one of the most important components is getting in front of incoming students.
“If there’s going to be a meaningful movement in this country for sustainability, it’s almost got to start at colleges and universities, and with young people,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons that his office presents to all incoming students about sustainability and provides them with ways to participate in the college’s efforts. It’s also one of the reasons that a new first-year class is so essential.
Guilford College recently started offering the Cape Fear River Basin Studies Program, an interdisciplinary course underscoring the importance of water and environmental stewardship. Students canoe in the river, learn to surf in the ocean and study the ways their actions impact the habitat they rely on. By combining an “embodied experience” where students actually engage with water instead of simply studying it, professor Maia Dery said the class stresses that students already live in the “real world” and helps them cross a common mind/body split that may be at the root of many environmental problems.
“The river basin and rivers and the ocean are the perfect metaphor for a college student,” Dery said, adding that the class helps students think about how their decisions affect things downstream literally as well as in their own futures. “You’re going to flush that toilet each day no matter how much you pay in tuition. No one can take a vacation from that reality. You can only take time off from being mindful of that reality.”