July 23, 2019 | 71° F

Rutgers practices renewable eating with vegetable oil power generator among other food-saving initiatives

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Using a Vegawatt generator, a modified diesel engine that runs on old vegetable oil, Rutgers Dining Services supplies some of the energy that powers the steam and electricity in its building from excess oils collected through leftover dinning hall food.  

The allure of the conveyor belt is its ability to get rid of a problem: food waste. Many students are concerned with how much of the buffet-style dining hall food — with its seemingly endless portions — are wasted by the end of the day.   

Dave Osmun, the director of the Livingston Dining Commons, said the majority of uneaten food comes “mainly from students.” The wasted food produces approximately 6 to 8 barrels a day filled up, roughly the size of a large garbage can, he said.

He said it is usually difficult to gauge how many barrels will be filled on any given day, as the number of students eating is subject to change. 

Measures are taken so that the amount of food both cooked and eaten is efficient and sanitary, Osmun said.

“We try not to overcook when we can obviously," he said. "(At) peak times we cook more, dinner periods are, of course, very popular. Other times are when you want to cut back.” 

He added that none of the food they cook is ever reused. 

In a given year, Rutgers students consume 83,008 16-inch pizzas, 244,722 pounds of bananas, 6,396 gallons of vanilla ice cream and 53,740 pounds of penne alone from the dining halls, according to the Rutgers Dining Services website.

Despite the notion that all dining hall food is thrown out, it is actually given to pig farmers, who retrieve the unfinished or uneaten food at the end of the day, he said. This is true for more than just the dining hall — at the Rock Café approximately 5 percent of the remaining pre-made food is also given to farmers. 

“We put the remains in the grinder, (and) grind it up,” Osmun said. 

Joe Charette, executive director of Rutgers Dining Services, said that it is difficult to place a number on the amount of uneaten food at the end of each day.

“Depending on the type of food, some is donated to one of our certified donation locations, others are mechanically digested, converted into animal feed or even turned into energy that is then used in the dining hall,” Charette said.

The Rutgers Dining Services owns a Vegawatt generator — a modified diesel engine designed to burn excess vegetable oil, he said. Discarded oil from the dining halls is collected and then brought over to the Busch Dining Hall. The Vegawatt then burns the oil, and the generated electricity and steam is used in the building.

Some of the certified food donation locations that Rutgers has established close relationships with include the Rutgers Student Food Pantry, Elijah’s Promise, local Catholic charities and the New Life Food Pantry, according to its website. Landfills are a last resort for food scraps.

“We are always looking to lessen waste in an efficient manner," Charette said. "Our Cupanion reusable-bottle program, for example, saves hundreds of thousands of cups, lids and straws from going to landfills each year. Several years ago, we removed trays from the dining halls in an effort to lessen food waste and saw results immediately.” 

Though he did not specifically mention the immediate effects of food waste, the influence of procedures like smaller bowls and cups, as well as the implementation of the Cupanion project, has reduced the amount of food students are able to eat or bring to their tables. 

In Spring 2017, more than 300,000 cups, straws and lids were saved from being deposited into landfills, according to the Rutgers Dining Services website

“Reducing waste of any kind has been important to Dining Services for years," Charette said. "This is why initiatives like the Cupanion program and others have started. As an example, we also have begun replacing old light bulbs to LED bulbs to conserve energy. We work diligently to make sure that, if any item is grown locally in New Jersey, we serve it in our dining halls — from our eggplants to tomato sauce, to honey and countless others. Our overall goal is to provide the University with a quality product in as sustainable a way as we responsibly can.”

Justin Chang

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