A Sustainable Diet is Not Just About the Food you Eat, but Also What You Do With the Food you Don’t Eat

My fellow volunteers and I were tasked with dissecting many smelly trash bags.

On an unnaturally hot April day last semester, I spent hours sorting trash under the grueling North Carolinian heat. Along with a cohort of approximately fifteen other students, we tasked ourselves with auditing each piece of Duke University’s dining trash for a day. We hauled countless bags of trash from all of Duke’s on-campus dining locations to a makeshift auditing station in our busy quad. There, we weighed the trash bags, audited 2,439 pieces of trash, and sorted them into their proper categories of recycling, trash, and compost. In the process, we measured how inaccurate the original sorting of the dining waste was.

We all do it. We cannot remember whether a certain type of plastic can be recycled and decide to “wish-cycle” it anyway. We recycle to-go containers even if they still have some food remnants. We compost the leftovers of a food item without first separating it from any plastic wrappers. All of these mistakes result from perfectly good intentions. We feel guilty throwing a large plastic to-go container into the landfill so we earnestly compost or recycle it, hoping to escape as much personal responsibility as we can for the U.S.’s massive waste problem.

The overall contamination rate was 51% across landfill, recycling, and composting streams in on-campus dining locations. (click to enlarge)

However, the shortcoming in composting and recycling efficacy that we observed surpassed my expectations. After all, being “green” is trendy and admirable nowadays at Duke. Yet in the final waste audit report, we concluded that roughly half of the waste audited in the landfill, recycling, and composting bins on campus were contaminated, or incorrectly sorted. Recycling bins were filled with trash and compost, and compost bins had large proportions of trash.

Each of these represent what the average trash, recycling, and compost bins look like in campus dining locations. Recycling bins were filled with more trash and compost than actual recycling. Almost half of the contents of compost bins was trash. (click to enlarge)

I was never a fan of physical labor or outdoor chores, (especially those that involve breaking a sweat) yet I voluntarily signed up for the waste audit at Duke. The U.S.’s massive output of food waste at the expense of the environment has always been an issue that I feel deeply connected to. After all, the issue is double pronged. On one hand, food excess in landfills is socially irresponsible considering the U.S.’s alarming rates of food insecurity. On the other hand, there is an immense waste of single-use plastics and compostable/recyclable material sitting in landfills at the expense of the environment.

The Rachel Carson Council is active in the fight for greater sustainability within our food systems. Of course, food sustainability includes goals like reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture, improving the treatment of farmworkers, and reducing pesticide runoff. Nevertheless, food waste is an overlooked issue that also lies at the core of agricultural inefficiency. My work with the waste audit was eye opening; I could not believe the sheer amount of wasted food or the pounds of perfectly compostable/recyclable material that gets shipped to a landfill. In order to produce food for more people using fewer resources and environmental consequences, we must address food waste. The greatest barrier to efficient composting and recycling at Duke was the lack of efficacy amongst students. The first step is to educate; people want to recycle/compost and help the environment, they just do not know how.


RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Karina Marinovich

Karina Marinovich is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy with minors in Psychology and Environmental Science. At Duke, Karina is pursuing environmental justice goals, including as chair of the Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee (DUSDAC), lead content strategist of the Duke Waste Audit, and an independent study about carbon labeling for Duke Dining.