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Implementation of a Composting Program
at the University of Delaware: Sustainability Report
Fall Semester 2009
The Composting Crusaders endeavor is to implement composting into the
University of Delaware’s sustainability initiative. Composting requires a 3:1 ratio of carbon
to nitrogen using organic materials that fertilizes soil and plants, and it further reduces the
burden wrought by overflowing landfills on the environment. In addition, composting provides nutrient-rich soil that suppresses plant diseases and pests, eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, and promotes higher yields of agricultural crops. Composting is a costeffective remedy that eliminates contamination by hazardous waste because it captures and destroys 99.6 percent of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air.
Successful composting involves time, labor, and land from the agriculture school.
Vermicomposting is deemed the most suitable form of composting for a college environment because it uses red wiggler worms to speed up the composting process. Since the University of Delaware is home to four dining halls, an abundance of greenery, and numerous paper-producing classrooms and laboratories, the campus is more than capable of supplying the raw materials that includes food waste, yard trimmings, and paper products. Even though paid University of Delaware staff needs to be involved in implementing a composting program, composting is a beneficial opportunity for students to contribute to their shared university home. With student contribution, undergraduates can learn about environmental responsibility and possibly conduct scientific experiments pertaining to organic waste decomposition and soil organisms. Through composting, the University of Delaware would not only raise the visibility of sustainable practices, but also demonstrate that respecting earth’s natural resources is a viable, effective option.
Introduction The University of Delaware is home to thousands of students who generate a considerable amount of food, paper, and yard waste on a daily basis. Currently, waste disposal services dump the university’s garbage in landfills where it provides a host of harmful problems for the environment. In addition to causing contaminated water run-off to watercourses and groundwater, landfills emit noise, dust, odor, bio-aerosols, and noxious gas into the atmosphere (“Landfills, Environmental Problems” npag). Since more sustainable options to dispose of waste are available, University of Delaware’s President, Patrick Harker, read the Composting Crusaders’ sustainability proposal in September and further requested this formal report. Therefore, in an effort to change how the University of Delaware disposes of waste as part of its green initiative, we have found that composting would be a beneficial alternative. Compost, defined as organic material that can be used to fertilize soil and or plants, is an environmentally, agriculturally, aesthetically, and economically-friendly means of processing waste. Through interviewing a specialist in composting and researching composting and its use at other schools, we have outlined a composting initiative to be implemented by the University of Delaware. In order to indicate how feasible composting is at the University of Delaware, our report highlights the necessary resources for composting, the amount of land needed to be allocated, and the transportation and labor required. Through our research, we have found that composting is feasible at the University of Delaware and Vermicomposting, a process that uses worms to speed up composting, is the most successful technique. Not only does composting present an invaluable, sustainable educational experience, it also heightens awareness for a responsibility shared by all of earth’s inhabitants.
What is composting?
In order to answer the aforementioned question, we conducted an interview with Gail Hermenau on November 16, 2009. Gail is a master gardener at University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension. She is also an expert in composting and runs a small composting site at the extension.
According to Gail, compost is organic material that can be used to fertilize soil and plants. When plants or vegetation die, the materials decay into the ground, providing minerals and nutrient-rich materials for plants, animals, and the microorganisms present in the soil. Mature compost is stable and contains humus, which is dark brown or blackish in color. Contrary to popular belief, when compost is cured correctly it actually has an earthy, soil-like smell.
Hermenau indicates compost is a 3:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen materials. Nitrogen sources come from food waste, and carbon sources come from dry materials such as straw, hay, woody stems, flowers, and recycled paper such as napkins without ink. Compost includes a mixture of the following: yard trimmings, food waste, and manure, which is then arranged in piles or rows approximately 3-4 ft high. Wood chips may also be added as a bulking agent and to speed up the breakdown of organic materials.
Hermenau mentioned that the composting process involves both a hot active phase and a cold passive phase. The hot active phase is the fastest process that requires the most labor. The compost during this process needs to be turned and watered every 3-4 days to incorporate ample oxygen. The oxygen causes the materials to break down in about 6 months of time. Fungi also aids in the decomposition process by breaking down carbon sources, while the natural bacteria in the soil consumes nitrogen sources. In the cold passive phase, the compost further decomposes until it is an aged or cured product.
Another type of composting called Vermicomposting breaks down organic materials that would otherwise overflow landfills. Vermicomposting is based on vermiculture biotechnology, the breeding and propagation of earthworms, specifically red wiggler worms, which process and filter waste through their bodies (Aalok et al. 59). According to Aalok, Tripathi, and Soni, the “role of earthworms in the breakdown of organic debris contributes [in] curbing organic pollution and providing topsoil to impoverished lands” (59). Since Vermicomposting is a versatile endeavor, it can be done in pits, concrete tanks, well rings, and wooden or plastic crates.
There is a specific formula to follow in order to compost. First, 3-4 centimeters of pebbles or pieces of brick need to cover the designated area. Second, the pebbles or bricks should be covered with 6-7 centimeters of coarse sand. To ensure proper drainage, about 15 centimeters of soil needs to cover the sand. Once there is soil, the earthworms are released and covered by cattle excrement and 10 centimeters of hay. Water is sprayed in order to moisten the soil, but not inundate it. The compost heap must then be watered for 30 days until the juvenile earthworms appear. After 45 days, the pile “changes into a soft, spongy, sweet smelling, dark brown compost” (Aalok et al. 61), an added benefit of Vermicomposting.
Composting is further beneficial because it:
Serves as an natural resource that improves the structure of soil better than synthetic fertilizers Suppresses plant diseases and pests Reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers Promotes higher yields of agricultural crops Facilitates reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization efforts by amending contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils Cost-effectively remediates soils contaminated by hazardous waste Removes solids, oil, grease, and heavy metals from storm water runoff Captures and destroys 99.6 percent of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)
Provides cost savings of at least 50 percent over conventional soil, water, and air pollution remediation technologies, where applicable
Following is a list of what items can be composted:
Coffee grounds and filters, egg shells, fruits and vegetables, nut shells, and tea bags all come from the food residue after meals, specifically in the dining hall facilities. Carbon sources such as paper products, napkins, and computer paper can also be composted.
Unfortunately, the following food residue is unable to be composted: fats, grease, lard, and oils. They create unpleasant odors and attract pests and rodents. Meat, fish bones and scraps also cannot be composted for the same reason.
Feasibility of Composting at the University of Delaware Now that we have talked about what composting is, the question is how feasible is it at the University of Delaware. With the help of Ms. Hermenau, we have found that composting, if performed correctly, can pay for itself. The ultimate goal is to make University of Delaware self-sustainable in the area of biodegradable waste management.
The university produces enough biodegradable waste to make compost to provide organic soil for all gardening and landscaping applications around the university. Since compost is better for plants than artificial fertilizers, adding it to landscaping around the university will produce healthy, vibrant grass, flowers, bushes, shrubs, and trees. According to Ms.
Hermenau, composting will save time and money spent on maintenance of landscape on the university grounds.
To properly carry out this composting program, specific resources will be needed.
These resources include materials, transportation, and labor. The University of Delaware is a vast and diverse community that can provide the program with all the necessary resources. Since the composting program is contained within the university setting, it can be used to promote sustainability and offer the community rich, fertile soil, as well as multiple educational opportunities to conduct research and study the process of composting.
Materials Needed for Composting According to Ms. Hermenau, the materials required for composting are biodegradable carbon and nitrogen sources, space or land, worms, and possibly a bobcat
machine to aid the composting process. As mentioned earlier, there needs to be a 3:1
carbon to nitrogen ratio in order to compost. Fortunately, there are four dining halls that generate tons of nitrogenous food waste. These are all types of foods except meats and greases, so there is an abundant amount of nitrogen resources. Carbon sources can also be collected from the dining halls through paper waste such as napkins and other paper products. Another excellent source of carbon comes from recycled paper in the computer and printing labs, as well as newspapers (Hermenau).
Beyond the dining halls, the compost program can use all of the yard clippings and dead leaves from the university landscapers. These scraps can be collected, dried, and used as carbon sources. However, yard clippings and dead leaves must be thoroughly dried and crumbled otherwise they act as nitrogen sources.
Conversely, each type of composting requires a different method to facilitate the breakdown of materials. Ms. Hermenau explained how Vermicomposting requires red wiggler worms and bins to store the compost in, and hot active pile composting requires a machine, such as a bobcat, to turn the compost pile and incorporate oxygen for aerobic composition. Fortunately, these are only one-time costs. Once the materials are bought they can be reused for each application during the composting process. As with any machine, the bobcat may require a little mechanical maintenance, but the worms will reproduce and stay healthy, thus facilitating larger scale composting projects.
Space Required for Composting The space needed to facilitate composting varies depending on the type of composting conducted. For Vermicomposting, a large indoor space is required, one that could be climate controlled to harbor the healthy growth of the worms. For an active compost pile not using Vermicomposting, an outdoor space would need to be used, such as an open field or unused farmland. According to Gail Hermenau, the school does have some space near the agriculture school that could be used for composting. Also, part of the new Chrysler plant could be used. The school also owns property in Middletown, Delaware that currently does not have a specified use. If all else fails, the university could bring waste down to Middletown to be composted as a last resort.
Transportation Required for Composting Transportation of the waste materials from the dining halls is the only process that incurs outside costs in the program. Food waste needs to be transported from the dining halls to the composting site and requires trucks that use gasoline or diesel fuel to haul materials around campus. Even though transportation is an outside cost it can be negated by the money saved from useful application of the compost product and the educational opportunities created from the program (Hermenau).
Labor Management and Composting The labor component of a compost program is the most intensive part. To properly separate compostable and non-compostable waste, the dining halls will have to change how they dispose of waste products. We attempted to contact dining services for this section of the report, but they were unresponsive, and they would not respond to our multiple calls or emails of questions. Nevertheless, as students of the university, we have eaten in the dining halls and have seen what types of waste foods are produced from the dining hall process.
We know that it is possible to separate waste in the dining halls based on its compostable properties. With this knowledge, dining halls might need to alter their system to become more efficient. However, many schools, such as Dartmouth, have found ways to accomplish the separation of waste so it can be composted. According to Dartmouth’s Sustainable Dining website, “all food waste is composted and put directly back into the campus landscaping.” In addition, food that is compostable is labeled accordingly on its packaging, thus making the separation of non-compostable and compostable material easy to differentiate. Once the waste has been separated in the dining halls at the University of Delaware, it would then need to be transported to the composting site.