Beyond the bustling stations at Kramer Dining Center, the noise of students is drowned out by the clinking clatter of the dish room where a cylindrical metal object sits at the end of the line, a destination for the grayish water racing toward white PVC pipes.
This is a machine called the pulper. While its polished metal exterior conceals its mechanical inner workings, the machine has a simple purpose: composting.
Missy Schrader, unit director of the Kramer Dining Center, said there are lots of different ways to approach handling food waste.
Similar to the garbage disposal in a kitchen sink, the pulper mashes plate waste, or food waste generated by the consumer, which is then collected in compost bins.
“The wasted food goes down a dish trough that has water,” Schrader said. “This pulper sits at the end of the dish trough and grinds it all up, along with napkins and whatever else is compostable. It grinds it all up and takes this sludgy slurry and it sends it to another machine that pulls all the water out. You get this collection of what’s called pulp, but it’s kind of like wet dog food.”
Schrader said almost all of the food served at Kramer is made from scratch, meaning the center receives ingredients like vegetables in whole form, requiring kitchen prep and subsequent kitchen waste from peelings and trimmings.
Winding deeper into the back of the dining center, a piece of paper taped to a sturdy metal door delineates a fill line on a replica of the Rubbermaid barrels.
Inside the room, a pungent scent sits like a mixture of freshly pressed juice and day-old food — the smell of the compost room.
Dull white Rubbermaid barrels crowd the right side of the room and another metal contraption dominates the left. This machine extracts the recycled water from the pulp, spitting out the ground mixture.
“The majority of the kitchen waste comes from vegetables because we don’t trim our meats, they come in pre-trimmed,” Schrader said. “So we have kitchen waste, and that kitchen waste is collected into compost bins … and we compost that two times a week.”
The compost, Schrader said, is driven twice a week to compost piles at the Department of Agronomy’s farm north of Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Leftover food is collected and sent to the Flint Hills Breadbasket, Schrader said.
“Food that is prepared that the customer didn’t consume that is left over, we either cool it down safely and then re-thermalize it and serve it out again, or if it is a product like french fries that you can’t really cool down and have a good quality product, what we’ll do is we’ll send that to the Flint Hills Breadbasket,” Schrader said.
Schrader said the pulper was put into the new Kramer project in place of a garbage disposal.
“With disposers, fresh water goes in them, they chop up food, and they send that pulp into the city waste stream,” Schrader said. “Having a pulper machine instead of a garbage disposer recirculates the water so that you don’t have fresh water going into it and then going down the drain. You save a lot in water and then you can still collect your pulp for compost.”
The pulper, although a significant dollar investment, was not abnormally expensive when considering its purpose, Schrader said.
“We didn’t have a pulper before, and we would save plate waste, but in our dish room we’d just take a plate and scrape it into a trash — sort of like school lunch — and then that would get sent to the compost pile,” Schrader said. “This really reduces that volume tremendously. It definitely comes at a cost, but that was factored into the project.”
The Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 presented Kansas State with an achievement award in 2013 for sustainable food management practices, according to K-State’s Housing and Dining Services website.
Schrader said although K-State has not collectively put another campaign together, sustainability has not died down as an area of focus. Sustainability remained at the forefront of planning, especially when they decided to eliminate trays at Kramer.
“We really knew that would impact our food waste for the positive and we wanted to make sure the systems that we specified were tray-less systems,” Schrader said. “The Derby still has trays. They would like to be tray-less, but unfortunately, the equipment that they have, you have to have a tray to move the plate.”
Kramer not having trays has cut down on the amount of food people can take at one time, leading to cleaner plates hitting the dish belt, Schrader said.
“It is an effort to get up and walk back over to somewhere and get another plate,” Schrader said. “You have to consciously think about doing it. Speaking for myself, I would unconsciously fill my tray and then I’d sit down and think, ‘How am I going to eat all this?’”
Olivia Gassman, freshman in kinesiology, said most of the time she ended up throwing food away at the Derby Dining Center, but not having trays at Kramer helps prevent this.
“I kind of like not having a tray whenever I go to Kramer because I end up getting less food,” Gassman said. “It’s easier to carry more than one plate when you have a tray rather than trying to balance multiple plates with just your hands.”
Schrader said she thinks going tray-less has contributed to students being a little more healthy since they are not taking as much food the first time through.
“They have to consciously make the decision to get up and get more food if they want it, versus the unconscious collection of bowls and beverages on your tray,” Schrader said. “The fact that you could line up five, six cups on your tray — now [that] you pretty much just have two hands to collect with, most people only take one glass.”
Mariana Cruz, freshman in civil engineering, said sometimes the food she receives at the dining centers isn’t exactly what she expected and she has to throw it away.
“It just ends up getting wasted,” Cruz said. “I know a lot of people feel pretty bad about not eating everything they get, but sometimes you just have to throw it away.”
However, sending the food waste to be composted instead of letting it go straight to the trash is a really important step in practicing sustainability at K-State, Cruz said.
Schrader said efforts to prevent food waste start with the consumer.
“There is a psychology to food waste,” Schrader said. “Using smaller bowls is one part, but also using smaller serving utensils sort of tricks the brain into thinking you need less because you’ve put in the same amount of work. We really try to minimize what we actually traditionally call waste, or what goes in the trash can and goes to a landfill.”