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FEHON: Our ideal carbon neutral Rutgers

Climate change shows itself in many forms, so naturally, there are plenty of ways to fight back. Students can use their voice to enact change within the Rutgers Climate Task Force. – Photo by Rutgers.edu

For many new students passionate about sustainability at Rutgers, trying to understand the Rutgers food waste management system is often their first step. Once that first step is made, they find themselves in a cool but crazy world of pigs, food dehydrators, energy generation and microbes

On top of food waste, there are other aspects of food systems like sourcing, packaging, storing and the health impact of our food.

Right now, the body that is centralizing the connection between food waste management and climate change is the Rutgers Climate Task Force – specifically, Working Group 3 (WG3), titled “Food and Water Systems."

As a reminder, the Climate Task Force has been charged with creating a climate action plan to make Rutgers a carbon-neutral, climate change-resilient university. This plan is to be completed by the end of the Spring 2021 semester.

This week, there were two town halls (Wednesday and Thursday, both 6-8 p.m.) where members of the Rutgers community shared their vision for a more environmentally-aware Rutgers. After which, the task force worked to incorporate these visions into one big plan.

Every Working Group has two to three co-chairs, consisting of faculty and staff members.  This week, I spoke with Dr. Xenia Morin, the faculty co-chair for WG3, to learn more about the role of food and water systems in this overall vision. 

To start, she gave the rundown on what Rutgers had been doing before the creation of the task force. 

“If you eat in Busch dining hall, the food scraps off the plates get dewatered and scraped into a barrel, and that barrel goes to a pig farmer … This has been going on since horse and buggy time … we were doing this even before it was even trendy,” Morin said.

On top of this, Rutgers uses old cooking oil for electricity and heat generation, as well as using microbes in an aerobic digester to liquefy the waste before safely pouring it down the drain. 

These are all great sustainability initiatives by Rutgers Dining Services, but an important note is that these tactics are not all happening at every Rutgers dining hall or food vendor. Due to this, over my past 2.5 years here, I have found it hard to really know how much food waste we are really diverting, even in knowing some of Rutgers' sustainability information (i.e., exactly how much food waste is going to the pig farm).

One of Morin’s statements highlighted this gap in information, in reference to comments received by Rutgers dining services.

“Every semester, there's always a list that students want (of sustainability information), and many times the students are surprised to hear that Rutgers Dining is already doing it," she said.

Clearly, for students to know the climate impact of each of their meal swipes, there needs to be better communication between Rutgers Dining Services and the student body. Morin said aiding this communication is what WG3 is trying to do, which is exactly how she answered the question, “In your vision of a carbon-neutral university, what do you see?”

“I think the carbon-neutral environment is one (where) you get feedback … a data-rich environment,” Morin said. She compared this to tracking your daily steps to stay healthy. 

Ahead of the town halls, it is also good to know if our words are really being heard. Morin said one example of addressing some concerns from the last set of town halls was, “We heard that a concern was lead in the water."

After investigation, WG3 found “there was only one building out of all of our buildings in Newark that had a lead service line, and it has been replaced,” Morin said. Additionally, WG3 found that Newark has a website to check their lead exposure risk and have made significant headway on replacing every lead service line in the city. More information like this on every campus’s municipality will be available in the next Climate Task Force Report. 

Another comment from the last town hall was to have less meat in the dining halls, as plant-rich diets are lower in emissions. Dining services is working on this. There is no need for a full-on death grip on your hamburger though. Morin said, “We are not going to advocate for no meat ... but we will reduce the amount of meat in our recipes." 

“We want people to fall in love with more plant-rich diets through taste, not because ‘oh, you’re going to save the planet,'“ she said. This emphasizes a principle point she holds as a task force member. She said, “I wanna make the best choice the easy choice," or in this case, the tastiest choice.

Morin mentioned the possibility of collaborating with Middlesex County to open a large anaerobic organic waste digestion plant that would provide methane for energy use through the digestion of food waste.

Currently, Rutgers' boilers run on methane from natural gas, but we could switch to methane produced from our food waste. This would reduce emissions from our food systems and energy production.

I mention this to make one last point: Solutions to climate change don’t have to be siloed! A solution in one category can influence another (i.e., energy and food systems). Keep this in mind when picturing your ideal carbon-neutral Rutgers.

Nolan Fehon is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in marine biology. His column, "Climate Corner," typically runs on alternate Thursdays.


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