From dish to dirt: Student group creates more efficient composting system

Natalie Riess | Art Director

The Green Campus Initiative at SUNY-ESF will finish a new, more efficient composting facility this semester to better recycle the campus’ food waste.

Meaghan Callaghan, president of GCI and a senior environmental studies major, said the most important aspect of composting is removing food waste from the waste stream so it does not end up in a landfill. Composting systems help to better decompose food waste so that it can be reused as soil, but the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry is currently only composting about 20 percent of what it could be, she said.

“By taking it out of the waste stream, we are able to decrease the amount that gets put into the landfill,” said Callaghan, who is also a former columnist for The Daily Orange.

In response, GCI has created a new system to better compost the disposed food on campus. Ross Mazur, a junior environmental resources engineering major, said GCI previously used a forced air compost system, which actively pushes air onto the food waste to help it decompose faster. The plywood on the original infrastructure was falling apart and the club thought it was appropriate to rebuild the systems so that they could last longer and handle more volume, he said.

The system is designed to maintain airflow because it passively aerates, said Mazur, who is also GCI’s treasurer. Air comes up from the bottom and runs through perforated pipes horizontally.

The system will cost about $800-$900, which greatly exceeds the club’s allotted budget for the project, Mazur said.

“The new system itself should be highlighted, not the price,” said Jin Kim, a junior in environmental studies and the composting chair of GCI, in an email.

Kim said the new system will be more efficient because the food waste will be spread between four compartments, which will allow the food waste to decompose before more is added into the pile. The club will collect the student food waste through five green kitchen compost buckets that will be placed around campus, she said.

GCI has been building the new system since ESF’s Physical Plant approved the project in October, Kim said. But the group has encountered obstacles.

“What was difficult was that it was expected to take a month or two but the project got held up in the approval process,” Mazur said.

Building the system in the cold also posed a challenge for the club, Kim said. Mazur said they will try to work on the facility on the unusually warmer days.

Kim said she and Mazur considered a few different options for the composting system, including an expanded version of the previous system, but later decided that a passively aerated system would be most efficient.

Another option was to give the responsibility of collecting the food waste to GCI volunteers, rather than to Physical Plant, Mazur said. The club also considered driving all of the compost to ESF’s field station in Lafayette, he added.

Callaghan said GCI will eventually use the soil produced in the composting system to grow food in ESF’s Lafayette station vegetable garden, which it also operates.


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