College Composting!

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It’s a joy to be home from college for the summer. It has been wonderful being home with my family, friends, and loved ones. Home cooking, my own bed, my own clean bathroom, a clean kitchen, quiet evenings; it is all a wonderful respite from the chaos of college living.

Now I’m ready to head back to school. However, there’s one thing I worry about. It’s not a petty concern– like the fact that the house won’t be silent by 10 PM or that the kitchen has syrup stuck to the floor. It’s much more serious. I worry about waste disposal.

I go to a tiny liberal arts school in the Midwest, and we take pride in being not-all-that-shabby when it comes to energy conservation and earth-friendly waste disposal practices. However, we have trouble with composting. We have only one dining hall, which is open for an hour and a half at every mealtime. When you finish eating, you take your plate over to the conveyor belt, dump your food in the appropriate bins, leave your dishes on the belt, and walk away.

The problem was that we weren’t composting, despite the fact that, through the efforts of our school’s farm, we actually have one compost bin by the conveyor belt. Poor compliance may have been due to poor signage. There was a small sign explaining what did and didn’t go in the compost bin, but it failed to identify which bin was which. It took me a good two months to learn where the compost was. There were still plenty of people who dumped their whole plate – burgers, chicken, cheese, yogurt – into the bins reserved for compostables. The college does in fact use this compost, although the meat and dairy – which do indeed decompose naturally – make the compost especially smelly. I have never personally been out to the farm, but I’ve heard complaints of the odors of the compost pile. There are also some general rules that say to allow piles that contain meat and dairy to reach a certain high temperature – 145 to 165 degrees – in order to kill off the nasty bacteria. This process often ends up taking away the good guys as well, and I wonder how much of this is followed.

Second semester, after returning home for a month of cleanliness, quiet, and easy composting, I returned to school, ready for another semester of watching the compost become gross and stinky. I returned to a pleasant surprise: in place of the small composting tips sign, there was a huge banner, impossible to go unnoticed, telling you what could and couldn’t be composted, in bright colors. The good news did not end here. Two students from the farm were on “compost patrol” every mealtime, monitoring where people put their waste and stopping people and asking them what they knew about compost. My hopes were lifted.

However, this didn’t solve everything. The farm students didn’t have the time to staff the compost bins during mealtime every single day. They couldn’t keep their eyes on every single person’s plate as it made its way to the conveyor belt. Not everyone paid attention to the new sign or seemed to care about the difference they could make.

There are some schools that have their composting system down. UC Davis, in Davis, CA, has Project Compost, a student-run composting program, which has been successful. The ASUCD Coffee House kitchen staff collects organic waste in buckets that are taken to the windrow at the school farms and used in community gardens. (A windrow is a row of compostable materials that allows large-scale composting). University of Washington also has several detailed pages on their school website explaining what to compost, and giving a list of the locations of compost bins around campus so students can easily dispose of their organic waste. Stanford University has plethora of composting help on their website: a compostables help sheet, a compost and garden FAQ, a photo guide to the various disposal bins on campus and what can be put in them, a list of composting references, and more. All of the above schools pass out promotional and educational material as well.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic about my school, because we already do a great deal to stay green and I’m definitely hopeful that our composting efforts will improve. I think we’re headed in the right direction.

Working at the Solana Center this summer, I’ve learned that teaching one person, one family, or one small group of people about composting can be fairly easy and even inspirational. Now, with my composting-education brain whirring with the ideas of other colleges, I’m trying to find ways to help our student body be more aware of what a difference we could make if we all took a little time to put our waste in the appropriate bin at the end of every mealtime. Little effort, big pay-off!

What suggestions do you have to help green up a school? What does your college do to compost efficiently? What ideas do you have?

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