Elm Staff Writer
Fuzzy mold, disgusting odors, meddling insects, and rodents — these are a few of the negative stereotypes that come to mind when many people think of compost, something understandable for anyone who has left food sitting on the counter for a few days too long.
Washington College’s Campus Garden and Office of Sustainability, however, are revolutionizing how people at WC think about compost and experimenting with the process of composting itself.
Since its introduction in 2011, composting on campus has grown with the campus garden. When Director of Sustainably Greg Farley joined the WC community last February, he brought a passion for incorporating environmental initiatives into multiple areas of campus.
“The project was brought to the College by local entrepreneur Jeff Warden, whose expertise has been critical to project development. Jeff has also been a generous benefactor of the program, supplying funds for equipment, labor, and internships,” Farley said.
With the help of funding and volunteer work from the Campus Garden Club and the Student Environmental Alliance under the leadership of Farley and his team of interns, an aerated static compost pile has been added to the campus garden.
In an aerated compost pile, woodchips or another bulking agent are placed on the top of the pile while pipes from below inject oxygen into the compost.
“Compost forms the basis of the garden. It’s how we create and revitalize soil to grow nutrient dense food for humans and wildlife,” said Shane Brill, Garden Club sponsor and Permaculturist for the Eastern Shore Food Lab.
Compost is nutrient-rich organic matter, created through the decomposition of carbon-based wastes with the help of friendly bacteria.
Compost Technician Intern Analiese Bush, freshman, has been taking online classes in microbiology and conducting research to study which kinds of bacteria should and shouldn’t be present in the composting system.
“We generate an enormous amount of food waste every day from the dining hall on top of filling trash cans around campus. If we can divert post-consumer waste out of the general waste stream, we can harness its energy and turn it into something good for the environment,” Bush said.
When organic matter, such as food waste, ends up in the general waste stream and goes to a landfill, it decomposes anaerobically, or without oxygen, which produces a powerful greenhouse gas called methane.
Composting relies on the intentional integration of oxygen to the system, allowing the friendly bacteria to prosper and decompose the waste safely.
While oxygen is traditionally incorporated into compost piles through the regular turning or mixing of the contents, the campus garden’s new aerated static composting system allows for a larger scale operation.
Oxygen is forcibly injected into the pile via pipes on an around the clock timer, a modern system that requires less man power to maintain.
“The aerated composting system represents an exciting leap forward that will benefit the entire community. Positioned in our demonstration garden site, it serves as a proof of concept for a low-energy approach to generate soil fertility at a large scale. It represents an important step toward becoming a zero-waste campus,” Brill said.
The compost is currently decomposing yard waste and wood chips with small supplements of food waste, with the goal of one day expanding to a majority of the campus’ discarded food.
“We’ve had to make some modifications to the Campus Garden in order to make space for the compost bins. We removed an invasive mulberry tree; installed large concrete blocks to form compost bins; and installed electricity. Mr. Warden generously provided funding for all of these projects, and for the purchase of wood chips from a local tree service,” Farley said.
According to Farley, composting could potentially save the campus money and help reduce its carbon impact.
“We currently pay to purchase compost for soil enrichment every year, and we also pay to have yard waste hauled away. Composting has the potential to reduce those costs significantly. As well, although food waste is more difficult to compost well, the technology does have the potential to help repurpose the college’s food waste, which is both a cost to the campus and a source of greenhouse gases once it gets to a landfill,” he said.
Bush’s goal is to educate people in hopes that students will think more about their waste.
“It’s not as difficult as you think it is to take a few seconds and sort out your recycling and sort out your compostables. If people even just take the time to walk over to our site at the campus garden and read the signs we have up over there, it could mean really big change,” she said.
The Campus Garden Club has work hours from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Fridays and welcomes new members. For more information, contact Shane Brill at email@example.com.
Additionally, any Office of Sustainability questions, concerns, or ideas can be directed to Farley at firstname.lastname@example.org.