Since October, the composter has dealt with nearly 1,000 pounds of waste a day, 200 pounds over optimal capacity. The greater load causes the composter to run on a 14-day to 18-day half-cycle, creating more coarsely ground compost that must continue decomposing by "pad curing," or sitting piled outside.
"It would be really nice if we could get it up to 28 days [for a half-cycle], said Jim Fisher, grounds manager. "But we're never going to reach that."
To get closer to that goal, the Environmental Coalition educated students about the importance of cleaning their plates while tabling for Food and Agriculture Month in March.
Aidan Currie '08 created a short documentary of local elementary school students cleaning their plates in Stav Hall, demonstrating for St. Olaf students that if little kids can do it, college kids can, too.
Student eating habits are the one part of the process that cannot be controlled from the outside. "It's an individual effort," Fisher said.
Environmental Coalition members chose positive feedback, rewarding good eaters with Andes mints as they deposited their trays.
"What I saw mostly was a lot of clean plates," said Dan Borek '06, an Environmental Coalition co-leader.
Borek was positive about students' ability to lessen waste. "I think it really comes down to the quality of the food and the quantity that's being prepared," Borek said.
He urged students to write comment cards, letting chefs know what students like so that those foods are prepared in the future.
Also, Fisher pointed out a small collection of twisted silverware and Jell-o cups, items that can slip unnoticed into compost-bound waste.
The compost, once ready, will be well received in a farm and garden-filled area. "I'll use it on all my flowerbeds on campus," Fisher said.
STOGROW, the St. Olaf student-run farm, will use also St. Olaf compost for its garden.
But if the load is not reduced, it could become a problem over time, said Michael DeJong, operations manager for Bon Appétit.
Bon Appétit is reducing waste on the production and preparation end. Fisher informed the company of an initial excess of bread, so Bon Appétit reduced its bread buying.
Bon Appétit's solution also includes batch cooking, "preparing smaller quantities of food closer to the time its needed," DeJong said.
Instead of having massive amounts of food pre-cooked that would go to waste if uneaten, chefs initially may only prepare half a dozen hamburgers or smaller batches of beans.
Batch cooking has been common practice for Bon Appétit. "Now we're trying to tighten it up even more so," DeJong said.
Some production waste is unavoidable when using fresh ingredients and cooking from scratch, DeJong said. Using fresh vegetables and making stock means that peels and bones are added to composter input.
However, nearly half of food waste is generated by students, DeJong estimated. The solution?
"Ask for smaller portions," DeJong said.
Lunch and dinner rushes at Stav Hall can also create more waste, DeJong said. Two lunch rushes, at 11:50 a.m. and 1 p.m., lead students to take more food than they can eat, because they do not want to wait in line a second time.
"We're trying to work with the college on class scheduling," DeJong said, so these rushes can be eliminated. In the meantime, he suggested that students try to adjust their eating times or take smaller portions and come back for seconds when lines will have shortened.
If the composter runs closer to capacity, biodegradable silverware and dishes from the Cage, which have been used since January, will be added to its input.
"We can handle what we got," Fisher said. "We just don't have room for anything extra."