Food, Waste, and the Environment: Waste Relations on a College Campus

By Charlotte Walters (Spring 2022)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines waste in multiple ways such as “a sparsely settled or barren region,” and “refuse from places of human or animal habitation such as garbage, excrement, and sewage.” Put simply, waste is discarded, expelled, or excess matter.  However this term invokes a more complicated discourse in relation to humans and the environment. Waste is interconnected with daily life but has been problematized and is interwoven with negative connotations as we are told not to “waste” our time, efforts, and lives.  Human relationship to waste provides a commentary on social values, social relations, and has been demonized alongside historical trends.

I was interested in waste within the context of a college campus in relation to the larger scale. I conducted ethnographic observations, an interview, and research to develop a broader understanding of the interaction with systems of waste on the William and Mary campus. I spent time observing the integration of trash cans into the layout of the William and Mary campus while observing student behavior. Additionally, I interviewed a lead intern on the Dining Sustainability team to understand the role of dining sustainability in the discussion of food waste on campus. My observations in conjunction with research speak to the moral and aesthetic properties of waste on a college campus.

Social Critiques

Text Box: “Waste creates a dichotomous relationship producing multiple realities and relationships. For example, the film American Beauty aestheticizes a plastic bag dancing in the wind, while a critical EPA commercial condemns a plastic bag in nature.”Waste is a multilevel and multifaceted concept intrinsically linked to all aspects of college life from taking out your garbage, to eating in the dining halls, to moving emails to the trash. The social connection of waste shows the role of cleanliness and efficiency in society. Furthermore, what is viewed as waste illuminates how a productivity driven society assigns value, and what kinds of things and identities are systematically excluded. Waste creates a dichotomous relationship producing multiple realities and relationships. For example, the film American Beauty aestheticizes a plastic bag dancing in the wind, while a critical EPA commercial condemns a plastic bag in nature. These two perceptions also comment on the nature-culture binary produced by waste.


Modern environmentalism has increasingly problematized waste and connected waste disposal with ethics. Some interpretations of the Anthropocene seek to frame it as an “apotheosis of waste,” as monitoring discards demonstrates knowledge on the geological, atmospheric, and biophysical impact of human activity on the environment. With this, waste management and the Anthropocene inform new “social relations, cultural forms, and political demands. The notion that human waste has altered the environment calls upon new environmentally driven solutions. As a result, ethics attached to waste management in the name of environmentalism and government campaigns of “reduce, reuse, recycle” were born.

“Waste creates a dichotomous relationship producing multiple realities and relationships. For example, the film American Beauty aestheticizes a plastic bag dancing in the wind, while a critical EPA commercial condemns a plastic bag in nature.”

Making the decision to recycle, compost, or throw away invokes morals. While doing this mundane task, the individual is asked to engage in self-reflexivity and think about how their participation in society relates to the environment. Messages surrounding trash exist everywhere on the William and Mary campus. Many trash cans around campus are accompanied by a sticker that says “Landfill Bound! You sure that’s trash?” supported by images of recycling. Additionally, all compost bins have a message on the top saying “STOP! Are you sure that’s compostable? If it is plastic or you’re unsure, please put it in the trash! If it is paper, food, or says “greenware,” toss it in!” This invites guilt, as the question of right and wrong is raised.

Messages on compost and trash at W&M. Photo by Author March 2022.

Waste management is systemic and dependent on infrastructure within an efficiency driven, capitalist society.  Waste management is not universally accessible, and behavior around trash is determined by social, cultural, economic, and political factors.  The role of trash is part of the design process in any institution such as William and Mary and requires contracting with waste management companies. William and Mary partners with a Richmond-based industrial composting facility known as Natural Organic Process Enterprises (NOPE). The benefits of an industrial facility allow for the composting of all food waste including meat, dairy, and many to-go containers and silverware. The nine compost bins are located at various locations across the William and Mary campus in places most utilized by students. However, this process is generally inaccessible to the average person.  Beyond a college campus, access to an industrial composting facility is not widespread, and many barriers exist to creating your own compost pile. Ultimately, waste management and the ability to make environmentally sustainable waste choices are systemically driven and represent an issue of environmental justice.


The relationship between aesthetics and societal perception of waste are strongly represented on the William and Mary campus. The spatial layout, distribution, and appearance of different kinds of waste disposal sites across campus speak to the ideals of aesthetics on a college campus. The Sunken Gardens create a picturesque representation of academic and student life at William and Mary. This area is characterized by symmetrical and neat landscaping alongside clear brick pathways and a green space. Trash and recycling bins are built into the curated natural experience of this area. Trash and recycling bins of the same metal style are in pairs alongside the walkway of the Sunken Gardens.  Each pair was placed on a plot of bricks indented into the grass and landscaping directly off the path in front of the academic buildings, displaying a clear architectural design to integrate trash.

Trash and recycling on the Sunken Gardens. Photo by Author, March 2022.

Aesthetics play a different role in areas outweighed by a need for function. Sadler Terrace is one of the busiest locations on campus during weekday lunch rush; utilized for work, eating, and socialization. This area has a high distribution and density of waste disposal sites situated for maximum use. At the entrance to Sadler Center, there are nine trash cans and two recycling bins situated directly adjacent to one another.

This area also speaks to trash behavior in relation to convenience. While moral signaling and environmental consciousness inform trash behavior, many of my observations suggest that people are mostly driven by efficiency and convenience. This is visualized by the overflowing trash cans at the entrance to the Sadler Center full of compostable items while the compost bin is farther from the entrance to Sadler and does not always reach its highest potential.  There is usually a pair of trash cans and recycling bins located at most places across the entire campus and locations with dining halls and residence halls have compost bins.

Aesthetics of trash play a role in the concept of the visible and invisible. Furthermore, locations with an absence of waste management sites speak to the role of aesthetics. For example, the Business School is the only location on campus with a dining facility that does not have a compost bin. Like the curated experience of the Sunken Gardens, the Business School produces a certain aesthetic and experience of professionalism and cleanliness in ways that differs from other areas on campus. Correspondingly, the obstruction of trash illuminates its problematization. Most dumpsters on campus are obscured by some sort of wall or fence. Additionally, dining emphasizes a concept of “behind the scenes” in regards to composting and waste management.  While it is good that this “behind-the-scenes “composting occurs, its invisibility speaks to the problematization of waste.

Dumpsters behind Tucker Hall (left) and trash cans on Sadler Terrace (right). Photo by author, March 2022.


Waste is an ethically charged issue entrenched in modernity and the attempt to separate nature and culture. Food waste, a simultaneously natural and human-influenced phenomenon transcend the separation of nature and culture. Latour discusses this concept of modernity and purification. Modern discourses surrounding trash illuminates its destructive properties in influencing the environment. Waste challenges the concept of purification which creates distinct categories separating nature and culture.  Waste illuminates the overlapping categories of nature and culture through the values, social systems, and practices that it creates. Environmentalism idealizes untouched nature and aspires for a ‘zero-waste’ society. However, this is ultimately unsustainable and discard studies seek to see the binary of waste perception. Reevaluating relationships with waste can offer an alternative construction that moves beyond moralism to remove negative connotations and understand waste’s connection to humans and the environment. The politics of ‘zero waste’ can be reevaluated to ‘celebrating waste’ to realign the tension between disposable and recoverable.

Living with Waste

Waste is more than composting a banana peel, recycling a piece of paper, or throwing your dorm trash in the dumpster. Waste is a complicated system that is manifested in the role of morals and aesthetics on a college campus. At William and Mary, trash is integrated into daily life to achieve the green liberal arts school aesthetic that promotes educated and sustainable action. Human relationship with waste displays the entrenchment of morals and social, political, and economic values in everyday systems. My research proposes an understanding of self-reflexivity regarding trash. This acknowledges the inequalities that influence perceptions of trash and the histories that have created different realities in relation to waste. With this, many environmental solutions are dependent on accessibility and systemic inclusion or exclusion. Thinking about what we choose to throw away as reproduction of societal values illuminates injustices and relationships to environmentalism. Interacting with trash in relation to the environment requires an acknowledgment of complex histories and furthers the connection of humans to nature to remove the negative stigma associated with waste.

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