Food wasted at a University Dining facility. Credit: Mark Herman

By Sakshi Vaya

Have you ever been to a landfill? I’m not talking seeing one from 300 meters away sitting in a car. I’m talking up close, face to face with it, standing in the middle of endless hills of everything that humans deem garbage.

I recently had the dubious pleasure of doing so, and let me tell you: It is far more real than the images you find on Google. It is a living, breathing, growing, snarling creature seeming to engulf all that is thrown at it. It stinks beyond belief — you’ll faint should you stand there more than 10 minutes. As you walk, you must watch your step, for black fluids mixed with melting plastic and rotting food scraps leak through the disgusting body of this monster and puddle on the ground. You look at its ugly, oily plastic skin and fear to touch it, for it might just suck you in. The bodies of these horrifying creatures are made primarily of rotting food.

In the United States, food waste makes up the biggest chunk of landfills, about 24 percent. And yet, more than one in five U.S. adults faces food insecurity. The numbers only get worse when you look at the student population, with 29% of students in four-year colleges facing food insecurity at some point while they’re at school, according to the Hope Center’s 2020 Student Basic Needs Survey.

The dichotomy between the over-abundance and crippling shortage of food is a salient feature of many college campuses in the U.S., with 22 million pounds of food being wasted each year. Our own Urbana campus is no stranger to this issue. Similar to the trends in the United States at large, we waste 30% to 40% of all food, both on and off campus — the fault of student behavior as well as institutional mismanagement.

Even as the university administration makes efforts to remedy the problem, food waste management at the U of I cries out for student engagement: first, because of high levels of food insecurity in the student population; and second, because students are best situated to fix the problem. It is thus crucial for Illinois students to understand food management at the university — a story that begins in our dining halls.

U of I dining halls greet you with a wide variety of options: many cuisines, diverse dietary preferences, and several options for each course of a meal. With a regular meal plan or the standard cost of one meal, you swipe your card to get in and then your only limit is how much you can fit on a tray. In this all-you-care-to-eat model, there is no limit on the number of plates, bowls, or servings. Result? Food waste.

As an undergrad, I have seen first-hand students put way more on their trays than they can consume, often taking multiple plates per person. I’ve routinely seen trays full of untouched food in the trash bins. It made me wonder how such a glaring waste issue went unaddressed. To learn more about the problem, I spoke to the Food Service Supervisor at the Ikenberry Dining Hall, Anthony Sanders.

He walked me through the doors into the kitchens and prep areas. “It’s not just students. A big reason for food waste in dining halls is excess production,” he said. In a university this size, with over 35,000 undergraduate students from across the globe, the dining services must accommodate all cultures and dietary preferences. With such a wide variety, it is hard to predict on a daily basis how much of what dish will be consumed. There are bound to be errors in these projections, which lead to more than 25 tons of perfectly good fresh food being thrown into trash bins each month.

“So where does all of this unused food go?” I asked, looking for hope. Sure enough, there was some. Sanders led me to the waste disposal system at the back of the dining hall, called Grind2Energy.

A campus Grind2Energy system. Credit: Mark Herman

Since 2019, the university has been using food waste from dining halls to produce energy through the Grind2Energy system. Food waste in several dining locations is churned through commercial-grade grinders before being filled into storage tanks. From there, the slurry is transported to the Champaign-Urbana Sanitary District, where it enters anaerobic digesters. These digesters convert the energy from the waste into biogas, and the remaining sludge acts as a fertilizer for agricultural fields. This system allows for almost all of the food waste from university dining to be diverted from landfills and instead be put to use, either as energy or fertilizer.

While I was relieved to learn about this solution, I wondered if the problem of food waste on campus was limited to dining halls. It only took a couple of student interviews to reveal that was certainly not the case.

After their freshman year, many students move to off-campus housing options and start cooking their own meals. Junior Raunak Bansal expected his food waste to decrease when he moved to a private apartment, since he would only be making what he needed. Not so. “It was a slow and hard realization that responsible grocery shopping, cooking, and storing food were skills that took a good while to learn,” he said. Like Raunak, most young people have little to no food management skills when they first start living by themselves, which means significant amounts of spoiled food and extras end up in trash cans.

It is important to see the food waste issue on a college campus in a national context.

Almost all of the food waste in the United States makes its way not to a recycling machine like the Grind2Energy system, but rather to a landfill. It is a common misconception that food waste that reaches landfills decomposes there and thus causes no damage. In reality, food in open landfills rots over long periods, releasing greenhouse gases like methane and mixing with other toxic substances seeping into the soil.

Food waste is also an enemy of recycling. Like the U of I campus, many municipalities around the country have a two-bin system of segregating waste into recyclable and non-recyclable components. With this system, wastes like plastic bottles, metal cans, paper, and cardboard can be diverted from the landfill and recycled instead. But there is a lack of education surrounding the proper segregation of waste. Many of us throw plastic and cardboard containers with food waste straight into recycling bins. Oil, water and other substances from such containers leak and contaminate other recyclable materials in the bin, ruining them for recycling.

To better understand this recycling-and-food-waste conundrum, I visited the Waste Transfer Facility on the U of I campus. There I saw with my own eyes the foul mix of things people throw into recycling bins, from used tissue paper to bad coffee to oily takeout that someone forgot to eat, all mixed with cups, cardboard, and paper. The contents of recycling containers are extremely contaminated, primarily by food waste, to the extent that only 30% of all potential recyclables are actually salvaged.

Here’s the most jarring part. While tons of food are wasted on our Urbana campus every day, many in our community struggle to secure two square meals a day. Despite university initiatives like the Food Assistance and Well-being Program — a food pantry for students — many remain helpless and hungry. Social, mental, or emotional issues may prevent them from seeking the help they need. The COVID-19 pandemic only added fuel to the fire, pushing thousands more to the brink of food insecurity. This is what makes the conversation around food waste more urgent now than ever before.

As an international student, I’m able to participate in this discussion as both an insider and an outsider. I come from India, a country with a far bigger hunger problem than the United States. In developing countries like mine, we’re raised with values that surround respecting, preserving, and judiciously using food, irrespective of your socioeconomic status. Wasting even a morsel of food is considered a sin. It is thus a huge shock to me to see that the contemporary culture around food in the U.S. normalizes throwing away leftovers if you “do not like it” or find it to be “too much work to store it.” The elevation of personal convenience to a sacred principle disregards the fact that individual behaviors impact food security in entire communities.

That said, these same cultural differences can be used to bring about change. A robust exchange of diverse views around food in our university setting can help educate people about hunger in the community as well as the environmental impacts of food waste across the globe. A campus-wide conversation about food values and food waste might also inspire individuals and groups to positive action. Unlike many other social issues, food waste is one that students have the direct power to solve through their personal decisions. We can choose to waste less, to be mindful of our portion sizes, and to be responsible with leftovers. We can also push new collective initiatives, such as the introduction of student-managed composting units, which could provide compost to green our campus.

So much better, after all, than a reeking landfill!

About the Author …

Sakshi Vaya is a senior from India, majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability. She is also pursuing the Certificate in Environmental Writing, and is a part of the Environmental Leadership Program, as well as the Global Leaders Program at the University of Illinois. She is currently a Zero Waste Intern at F&S, and after graduating in May 2024, will devote herself to Jeevatva, a waste management startup based in India.

This article was written for ESE/ENGL 360, a Certificate in Environmental Writing course.