24
March
2014

Organics Recycling in University Curriculums: A Growing Trend

TOS_11_Organics_Recycling_Universtiy_Curriculums

In this eleventh episode, we speak with Director of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at Cal Poly University, Hunter Francis, and Adjunct Professor at University of Illinois Springfield, Wynne Coplea, about the state of organics recycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion education in North America, and about the advantages of introducing composting into University curriculums.

Thank you to ecovio® from BASF for making this episode possible.

ecovio® is a high-quality and versatile bioplastic of BASF. It is certified compostable and contains biobased content. The main areas of use are plastic films such as organic waste bags, dual-use bags or agricultural films. Furthermore, compostable packaging solutions such as paper-coating and injection molding products can be produced with ecovio®. To find more information, visit our website.

(more…)

EM: So Hunter, as director of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at Cal Poly – can you tell us a little bit about the situation at Cal Poly regarding composting and training?

HF: Yeah, we have a large agricultural college; it’s the second largest campus in California. We have about six thousand acres here in San Luis Obispo, and an additional three thousand acres in Santa Cruz County. And so…and we have one of the country’s largest agricultural colleges, which means we have a lot of animal units; we have quite a bit of beef cattle, we have a large dairy and we have chickens and horses and so. And because of that we have a lot of manure, and we have developed a compost operation that handles all of our manure and our green waste, and so it’s a good site to do all our trainings in composting, because we have all of the equipment, and so on.

EM: That’s excellent. And your course is taking place very soon isn’t it? When is it starting?

HF: The 24th. It’s the whole week: march 24th through 28th.

EM: Right, okay. And have you been running this training very long?

HF: Well, it’s the second time that we’ve offered it. So, this is a week-long professional development compost training, and as I said, this is the second time we’ll be offering it. We did a week training two years ago in 2012, and it looks like at this point it’ll be an offering that we do every two years or so.

EM: And is your target audience the industry people that are actually working at composting operations?

HF: Yes, or agriculturalists. We have a lot of vineyards in our area, and we have…we are pretty rural, so you’re correct: the target is more people working in industry or in agriculture, or waste management, who are looking for skills either to improve their composting knowledge, or to start new facilities, so. We do have a couple student volunteers who help with it, but as it stands we do not have a composting course in the normal curriculum. So that’s something we’re hoping to develop. The one course that’s in the process of being initiated is a compost and soil-testing course, which is going to be offered through the Soil Science Department, that would focus more on the laboratory techniques for testing compost.

So, that’s exciting. We do have a pretty strong soils department, and as you can imagine, soils is a good way to connect with a lot of the processes involved in compost. And my understanding is that that’s probably about as close as you can get to actual, you know, established academic degree programs that would be focused on composting would be some of the soil science programs around the country. Because as far as I know, no one’s offering a degree in composting per-se.

EM: Right. Well, that’s great though that Cal Poly is starting to bring composting education to the fore in various ways, that’s very promising. And a question to both now: who do you are the key groups that need composting education today?

WC: I believe each sector in our culture and our economy does have a need for some form of composting education. But at this time, the particularly important target audiences for composting education in my mind, would be ag professionals and growers, the agricultural community; some of the more traditional farmers have maintained a form of composting, many of them certainly still do land application of manure and animal bedding, and things like that, but not a lot of them do actual blending and composting and use the compost. With the upsurge of interest in local foods, organic growing, specialty foods and so forth – they’re a prime target audience. As well as, I think, local government officials, because that’s where the policy rubber meets the road. And local government officials can do an awful lot, just with their own contracts for services, their own direct services that they provide.

The third prime group I think would be current waste management professionals. Absolutely, I think those are our target audiences right now. But really, the answer could be everyone; anyone.

HF: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that was well put. I think on the state level too, in terms of policy makers, there should be more education. Particularly when it comes to aligning some of the overall goals of these different agencies. In California we definitely struggle from the fact that there are a number of environmental regulatory agencies sometimes that don’t…it almost seems as if the policies are not well aligned. So, you know, here the big challenge is the fact that the air quality boards are creating restrictions in terms of monitoring VOC’s, and so forth, that are making permitting of composting facilities difficult in some areas, so at the policy level I think there’s some need for education as well.

EM: Excellent points. And like with Cal Poly, we see more and more universities including organics recycling and composting as part of their curriculums and daily activities as well. Can I ask you both, then, for your clear take on widely including organics recycling in university curriculums especially, possibly even as a stand-alone course. Is it a good idea?

HF: Yeah, I think it would be. I think it would tie into student interests, especially, you know, there is a fairly strong contingent of students who are interested in environmental studies and in recycling, and so on, and…. The other thing that I was thinking about is the fact that a lot of academia across the country, and probably across the world, is paying a lot of lip service to this idea of interdisciplinary studies, and breaking down silos, and, you know, having offerings across departments – and composting is really ideal for that type of education because it draws on a lot of the different disciplines; so everything from soils, to environment, to biology, agronomy, engineering, even marketing, or energy use. It can all be tied into these types of curriculums. So, I think it offers a lot of potential for meeting that student demand and for, you know, engaging the different disciplines. And it also could be a response to a lot of overall social goals too, which is namely to get organics out of the waste stream.

EM: Wynne, do you want to weigh-in on that?

WC: I definitely think that there is a need, and it would be welcomed for colleges and universities to begin to create and teach, and keep on-going formal curriculum built around composting. At this point, I would agree there’s not a lot of formal curriculum and/or even stand-alone certificates or degree programs out there. The non-formal education community has actually done a better job of pulling together the players. And it was already noted that extension is one of key players – certainly here in Illinois, UOI has a strong extension presence and they have a good composting instructional setup and resources online. And there are places like Cornell’s Waste Management Institute that has done a lot of research; I believe that that institute is set up more for research and hands-on involvement for the students in research.

EM: They have a composting site as well, and the campus also has a lot of sustainability and recycling initiatives going on too around the campus. So, you know, that’s really great – they’re at the forefront of sustainability education as well at the moment.

WC: Oh yes, uh-huh.

HF: Yeah.

WC: University of Georgia also has some research going on in vermicomposting at one point, as does SIU Carbondale here in Southern Illinois – they have a major vermicomposting program; they utilise…they grind all of the food scraps from the cafeterias on campus, feed it to worms in an – at least – thousand square foot building, and then take the vermicastings and utilise that on campus. So, it’s a hands-on opportunity for the student workers to be involved, and to learn about it. It’s also that some of the professors there are conducting research and involving students –

EM: Yeah, and another example off the top of my head as well would be the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which does a lot of work with renewable energy – they’ve installed a biogas facility at the university, that’s totally run by the students and provides great training for anaerobic digestion and biogas production – so there’s that as well.

But as you say, there doesn’t seem to be a formal, stand-alone university course or curriculum based around compost – how far away do you think we are from Universities offering these kinds of courses?

WC: There is a change on the horizon, and groups like Compostory.org are helping to usher in that change. I do believe universities and colleges are waking up to the value of multi-disciplinary approaches. The students want it. Hands-on experience is so valuable, along with the research aspect and the higher-order thinking and writing skills. The hands-on stuff and service goes right along with it. And industry, I think, is arriving at the same point as education is, where we see a need for some change, and more collaboration.

EM: And you’re developing a curriculum for Kankakee Community College as well. I was wondering what role do community colleges play in composting education today in the US?

WC: Community colleges have served more-or-less as the “in-between” the universities and industry and trade associations that are providing very specific, very targeted short-term training, you know, for a specific topic. Community colleges can help take that and put that within a context of industry, but also giving academic credit, which then can be build upon for these further certifications, degrees, and so forth. I think that all three levels need to begin to work more closely together, and it is beginning to happen.

The National Recycling Coalition, along with RONA (the former recycling organisation of north America) – in which there are many movers and shakers out there in California, Hunter – put together three years ago a national committee for sustainable resource management learning standards; and from a variety of sectors: business people, processors, academic folks, non-profits…this committee agreed and put together twenty-five standards for learning, which any state recycling organisation, trade association, or college, really, could or should be using if they want to formalise and teach some standardised sustainable resource management – it’s not just recycling coordination anymore.

And they’re brand new, I mean literally hot off the presses. They just were announced and, kind of, finalised late in 2012. There are several state recycling organisations that are considering implementing them, or being more-or-less, quote-on-quote certified to teach sustainable resource management. And again, I’m Vice President of IRA here in Illinois, I am chair of the Certification Committee here; we have a hope and desire of taking these two classes: one is currently being taught through Kankakee Community College online, completely online. The second course will be available this summer. And then the students in that course will be offered the opportunity to test for certification to become a nationally certified sustainable resource manager through IRA – through the Illinois Recycling Association – because we’re using these new learning standards.

Now, I’m kind of putting the cart before the horse because we haven’t formally been accepted yet, but I’m pretty sure we will be. We’re excited about it, we’d like to see it grow and again, in my mind, this collaboration – academically, but also with industry driven, up-to-date, cutting-edge information on best management practices, on current best technology…. That stuff comes from industry, you know? And where industry can collaborate and advise, and – whatever – help provide and create this kind of curriculum, there you will have very valuable curriculum.

EM: Yeah. That’s really great points there, actually. And what would be the outcomes, then, of having such widespread composting education do you think?

WC: The ultimate outcomes? I guess the ideal would be that composting begins to be accepted as an integral part of a sustainability curriculum, as well as any sustainability goals at any local government or community program, any organisation program. That there would be a greater number of jobs specific to composting in the economy as a result of professionalising it academically and, you know, through the trade associations.

And just that…you know, there’s going to be more of a cultural buzz as time goes on. There’s definitely a paradigm shift, a sea change occurring. There is a greater push for sustainable practices that capture and manage natural processes, as part of every day business and as part of our learning and education. So, I just see…including composting education and training at any level – formal or non-formal – that’s the way we’re moving.

EM: Yeah, definitely. And last question now – Wynne, you’re involved in course development – what needs to be done, and what types of support is needed in order to develop such a curriculum?

WC: Well, federal dollars, grant dollars, private foundation dollars; to help a college or a professional trade association…you know, it takes time. I mean, a college course – a university course – the general rule of thumb is that it takes twenty-five weeks full-time to develop a new course from scratch. Two courses – you’re talking a full year just to develop two new courses, and that would include researching all the existing stuff that’s out there right now. That’s a chunk of someone’s time. So that’s valuable, you know? And the knowledge of how to pool all those resources together, and…. So anyway, what’s needed is support for the college or the trade association to be able to do that.

HF: Yeah, and that’s actually how we got our compost training that we’re doing here next week. Originally the first year’s offering was funded by a grant from the USDA SARE program – which is the US Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education – they funded the first training in 2012. And then, this current training, we have also received some funding from a local charitable foundation, the Miossi Foundation, so…

WC: Yeah. So there are often grants available through federal agencies, through colleges, to help with something like that. Honestly, unless trade associations have a 501 C3 designation, I doubt that they would, many of them would be eligible for a lot of the larger foundation grants. But small grants, even, can help. So, getting a little bit of funding together to begin with is a key start.

But beyond: assuming you have somebody that’s going to drive the bus and dedicate a significant amount of time to it, then begin researching. You would have to begin researching the curriculum that’s already out there, the industry and trade association-type trainings that’s already out there. I already researched – I don’t believe there are learning standards out there, but that would be a great thing to begin to pull together. You know: what would be the learning outcomes of such a training. I.D. the proponents in your area: those that are interested for environmental reasons, as well as those who are interested because it could be a value-added operation for their existing business. Fill in the blanks; bring them to the table and fill in the blanks. Decide what training is already available, where we need to go, and then fill in the blanks in-between; what the students should know, and how to get it to them.

And I’m a firm believer, as Hunter is, that a blend of formal resources and some classroom learning, with the science behind it…. Compost is perfectly suited for STEM: for science, technology, engineering and math – all of those skills can easily be applied when studying and/or implementing composting. So: bring everybody to the table, come up with a good product, with very specifically identified learning outcomes…someone is going to pick it up somewhere along the line. That would be my advice.

EM: It’s great advice. And that’s all we have time for today now, so I want to thank you both for coming on the show to talk to us.

WC & HF: Thank you.

EM: Okay all the best now, bye!

10
March
2014

Food Recovery & Onsite Composting in Schools & Institutions

TOS_9_On-Site_Composting_Food_Recovery_Schools_Institutions

This episode corresponds to Lesson 3 of our online course.

In this ninth episode, we examine a food recovery school program in Oakland, USA, with program director Kelly Ernstfriedman and an onsite composting program in Ioannina University, Greece, with Prof. Georgios Pilidis, in order to get a vision of how a 360 solution can work in schools and other institutions.

Thank you to Big Hanna Composter for making this episode possible.

The original since 1991, and now installed in more than 25 countries, Big Hanna’s five standard models of on-site in-vessel composters range from 75 to 2400 kg of food waste per week, for housing areas, prison, schools, canteens and restaurants. For more information, visit www.bighanna.com

(more…)

TRANSCRIPT

 

Kelly ErnstFriedman:

EM: Let’s just start I suppose with a little background information – you started the Food for Kids program back in May 2013, yeah?

KE: We did, we did. We were approached by Nancy Deming, who works for – she’s a consultant for the Oakland Unified School District, and she works for a program called Green Gloves, which is all about greening the Oakland school system. And she had been seeing a lot of the waste that’s been going on – she works on various initiatives in the schools, including a sorting program, which is the basis for our food donation program. Instead of everything going to the landfill, she’s working on getting the schools to sort their trash at lunch. And then they have something called a Food Share, which is basically, the kids – especially at the elementary and middle-school age, where their bellies are a little smaller and they’re required to take a certain amount of food and they often don’t eat it. So the Food Share bin gives them a chance to put that in there and if someone else decides “hey, I want another milk” then they can take that during the cafeteria period. But then after that cafeteria period, that food goes into the landfill, or the compost.

And so Nancy really wanted to connect with someone who could take that food and then donate it. Thanks to the Bill Emerson Food Recovery Act, which was passed in the U.S. In 1996, organisations are encouraged to donate food. It’s sort of a liability coverage that says that unless there’s gross negligence, non-profits can take this food, or businesses can donate this food and get it out to people that are hungry. So, we kind of had the legislation there behind us, we just needed to figure out a system that worked for Oakland. And we started our pilot in May 2013 with two schools – two elementary schools – and we recovered over three thousand pounds of food, and worked with about thirty families just in about six weeks.

EM: That’s great. And how much would you recover now per month, say?

KE: We…total, we’ve gotten about, I think forty-five hundred pounds of food in the last six months. And we average probably thirty to fifty pounds a week. One of the schools that we’re going to be starting in the next couple of weeks – we did a survey and they had fifty-five pounds of food from one day of lunch.

EM: That’s a lot of food.

KE: It is. It is (laughs).

EM: And does it all get distributed then?

KE: Yeah, all of the poundage that we note – all of that gets distributed.

EM: That’s very good. And to touch on the regulations again, is it primarily the regulations that are preventing schools and other public places from distributing food?

KE: It is, it is. Because the food comes from the Government, there’s very strict rules on what can and can’t go back to the kitchen, and that’s been another part of the program as well, sort of educating the kitchen managers and staff about what can be returned. So for example, if they have apples or pears that go out and go into the Food Share; if those are in pretty good shape, and the kitchen manager has the opportunity to make the call and say “you know what, I think I can use these again tomorrow, or the next day, they’re going to hold up”, they can take those back into the kitchen, clean them off and re-serve them. Anything that hasn’t had a, kind of, heat differential, that can go back in and be re-used.

But anything that has had some kind of temperature change – we see a lot of cartons of milk, for example – some of our schools are satellite cooking kitchens, which means packaged food comes in that gets heated up, so they’ll have a plastic wrapped piece of pizza, or a burrito, or a baked potato with cheese and broccoli – anything like that would have to go into the trash before we came along. But now that we’re here, then immediately after the period, that goes back into refrigeration or the freezer, depending on the site – and then that is distributed either to the students and their families during a distribution period at the school, or it’s connected with a community partner: a soup kitchen, a church – some organisation doing food assistance – and is given back to the community.

EM: Right, okay. And do the schools that you work with compost their waste already, or is that something that hasn’t been done yet?

KE: Yes. That’s actually a great first step to setting up a type of food recovery program, because you want to make sure you’re getting the food – you don’t want to have to actually, you know, go through the bin and do a dumpster dive type exercise where you’re cleaning things off. So having a sorting system that includes compost and includes a food share is absolutely essential. And that’s the first step in how we choose the schools that we’re expanding to is do they already have a Green Gloves in place, or can we get a sorting system up and moving relatively quickly so we can begin the food recovery.

Because that’s just…that takes a little bit of onus off the process when that’s already done, and you can say “okay, here’s the box of food that gets donated – great, that’s done, that’s neatly packaged – let’s hand that off to the parents,” or “let’s hand that off to the community organisation”. So definitely, I think composting and sorting is vital.

EM: Excellent, so they work well together side-by-side?

KE: Yeah.

EM: And would you say that composting and the food recovery program are a good educational tool for students as well?

KE: We hope so. That’s actually, sort of, the next phase that we would like to work on is getting the education component in there, because we have hand outs and, you know, we talk to the parents and the kids. And that’s one of the feedback from one of our pilot schools, Brookfield, saying “this is really important, this is the message that we want to be sending our kids, is that food…you know, food is a resource, food isn’t something you take a bite of and you throw away and you really have to think about that”.

Thankfully, you know, because of Nancy’s work with the Green Gloves program and the sorting, the kids are already getting a sense of that. One thing that’s really fun to see when we do site visits is; we go in at lunch and you see these kids, especially the youngsters that come over, and they’re really looking at the bins and saying “okay, is this landfill? Is this compost? Is this food share?” And you just, kind of, see them working it out, and then they put something in the food share bin and we say thank you, and they just get this big smile on their faces. So, you know, it’s definitely a group effort and all of these different things working together – the teachers as well have been very supportive of the program, and you know, they want to see the kids getting more nutrition and understanding about food and the food system, so

EM: Yeah, well that’s never a bad thing. And I know you’ve been running this in schools, but could you see this type of program running well in a university, say, or other types of spaces, like maybe restaurants, for example?

KE: I think that, not necessarily this program, but there is potential for other programs to work. In the United States, we have a lot of really exciting initiatives going on: there’s the Food Recovery Network, and Food Recovery Network is all about creating student-run food recovery networks in universities. And they have, I want to say over twenty or thirty schools that are participating, and then they had another sixty requests from students that want to start a program. There’s also really great restaurant initiatives that are going on. Out of Austin Texas there is Go Halfsies, which is a group that’s working with restaurants to help them offer smaller portion sizes. So they would have a meal, it would be half the size and the difference in price would be donated towards a hunger relief organisation. You know, there’s all different kinds of ways that businesses can get involved, really specific to what their business is. Restaurants have a great opportunity to donate food and to create compost programs. Schools, especially, you know, large universities with multiple cafeterias – there’s a huge opportunity there to divert waste, and also to get students involved in the process, which I think is really important as well.

EM: Yes, definitely. And for those listening in who might be interested in setting up a similar initiative – could you maybe give a bit of general advice or share some insights into how best to go about setting up a program like this?

KE: I think the biggest thing, you know, regardless of what country or what school district you’re in, is really working with the school and working with the parents and the staff. Because with any new program, to make it work you have to make sure it works with what’s already going on. Particularly with a resource-strapped staff, you don’t want to come in and say “here, we’re going to give you a whole bunch of new tasks”, you know. So, talking with them about the problem of food waste, and then figuring out a way that’s going to work best for them. Some schools are going to need to do distribution twice a week, some are going to need to do daily. You know, looking at the amount of surplus you have is a great way to start: doing some kind of survey with the kitchen management – just to look at okay, “how much milk are we getting in? How much extra food do we have?” And really working with each site and making it very site-specific. There’s not, sort of, a once-size-fits-all. There’s definitely steps you want to take in terms of talking with the schools and finding parent volunteers, or if you don’t have a strong parent volunteer group, which several of our schools don’t, you can partner with another community organisation. We have several schools that are going to start – they’re going to be working with community partners (churches and soup kitchens) that are going to come and pick up that food every day. So, it’s a much smaller ask for the community, but we’re still recovering that food, we’re still getting that food to people that are in need.

EM: Yeah, which is the most important thing. And what’s the future vision for food shift then?

KE: The large vision for Food Shift is that we can create a fee-for-service food recovery network. We believe that food recovery should be compensated in the same way that waste management is. In the same way that we pay for people to pick up our trash, our recycling, food recovery should be valued in the same way. It’s difficult with school districts because they’re so resource-strapped, but what we see, sort of the larger vision, would be policy changes around food recovery. So, you know, cities and municipalities, and maybe even the federal government would eventually put money behind this and say “yes, this is important, we’re going to pay for this service”. So not necessarily the schools themselves, and it’s not going to be, you know, it’s not a get rich quick kind of thing, but ideally yes, that that would be compensated. But that’s a much further down the line vision.

 

EM: That was Kelly Ernstfriedman, program director of the Food for Kids program, with some great insights and advice on running a food recovery program in a school setting. We go into detail about potential models for edible food recovery in lesson 3 of our online course, and list the key steps on how to get started.

And while our next guest doesn’t work directly with a food recovery program, he does have great experience with onsite composting in a University campus. Professor George Pilidis is a member of the Biological Applications and Technology department of the Ionannina University in Greece. Ioannina University is the first to start composting its waste in Greece and Prof Pilidis has been monitoring the composting program’s performance very carefully, so we’ll get into a little bit of detail on how it all works, and any issues they had along the way.

 

Prof. Georgios Pilidis:

EM: So Georgios, Ioannina is the fourth biggest university in Greece, I’ve heard you started recycling back in 2008, but when did you start composting organics?

GP: So I have to say, we have started earlier. Fifteen years ago, we had started to recycle our laboratory waste. This was the first step, and a very important one, because we were the first university [to do it] in Greece. We have started for the management of the solid waste in 2009, and the composting system was part of the solid waste management within the university campus; where we have approximately twelve thousand students – undergraduate students – plus two thousand post graduate students, so in total, fifteen-thousand people are living in this area.

EM: Okay, you must have quite a few restaurants and canteens then?

GP: We have two restaurants and we have fourteen canteens.

EM: So yeah, that’s quite a lot.

GP: Yes. (laughs).

EM: I imagine that’s lot of food waste too, then?

GP: Yes, we have approximately one hundred kilograms food waste per day.

EM: Right and how much compost does that make in the end?

GP:  So, according to our studies, fifty percent of the carbon is released in form of carbon dioxide, while the other fifty percent is being converted into a first-class compost. This means we have approximately fifty kilograms of compost per day.

EM: Okay, and how do you manage the compost then, do you sell it?

GP: So, this compost is used mainly by the gardeners of the university, and for this reason we do not have any chemical fertilisers within the campus. As well as, it’s used by people which are working in the university.

EM: Well, that’s a great use of compost.

GP: Yes.

EM: And you were the first university in Greece to start composting?

GP: Mh-hm, exactly.

EM: Yeah, how did the students react, did you have a lot of education to do beforehand?

GP: Yes, the students reacted very positively. We have located this composter directly under the student restaurant, in the basement – it’s an open-air basement of course – and we have also bought an air filter, therefore we do not have any bad smell. The only smell which is coming out is during the maturation process, which is taking place outside of the composter. And we use this composting unit also for didactical issues: many schools are coming here and visiting this composting unit, children, and….this educational process is excellent.

EM: That’s great. Yeah, the educational opportunity, I guess, is a good reason to have a composting unit in a school and university…

GP: Yes.

EM: And can you tell us a little bit about the composter itself?

GP: The composter is a big one – a closed system – the dimensions are approximately five meters long, and two meters in the height, and capacity is four cubic meters, the cylindrical capacity, and this composter is able to treat between four hundred kilograms and one thousand, two hundred kilograms food waste per week. We have approximately six hundred to seven hundred, so we manage this very well.

EM: That’s great. And it’s important to pick the right equipment for your specific needs – what was important in your decision, then, when it came to choosing a unit?

GP: The first and important thing is the material where this composting unit is made. The stainless steel, for example, the quality of the stainless steel is very, very important. And also, of course, the mechanical part, because our composter unit has temperature sensors automatically we have also aeration, and rotation of the drum [it all works] automatically, and this electronics should work very well. But the most important for me is the frame of the composting unit, and the material which is used.

EM: Right, and how do you handle contamination in the input stream of your composting unit?

GP: We are very happy because only one person is responsible for that from the university restaurant. And this person collects the waste, and we made recommendations to him, what kind of food waste he should [put] in the composting unit, and he’s very careful of course. The input is very important: you should avoid to have foreign subjects, for example glass or plastics or stones, or something like that.

EM: Yeah, it sounds like it’s a well controlled system – and this composting program was a pilot program to see if it could work elsewhere, is that correct?

GP: Mh-hm. The pilot program works very well, and Greece as [a] country is really far away from a good system for solid waste management. It’s the biggest environmental problem in Greece at the moment, and we thought that the university should play a pioneering work on that, and we made this, I think, [unclear] with success, due to the fact that we are going in many symposiums and national conferences, and we are presenting this…I think we’re well-known, at least in Greece at the moment.

And at the moment, as far as I know, the municipality of Ioannina is going to buy also such types of composters in order to place them in different places of the city: Ioannina is the seventh-biggest city in Greece with approximately one-hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants. And they’re going to place five or six such composters in places close to restaurants. I do not know exactly the plan, but they’re going to buy five or six composters like this.

EM: That’s great to see it expanding. And permits and regulations apply in most countries and can be quite strict – what’s the situation in Greece and did you have any issues?

GP: No, the Greek government has not any regulations on the quality of compost or the operation of composting units, but there is the European Compost Net, and they set some quality criteria. But according to my opinion, this criteria should be expanded also to organic compounds, not only to heavy metals and xenobiotics or foreign subjects etcetera, or microorganisms, they should also focus on organic compounds and this has been not done. And in order to be a member of this Compost Net, you have to produce a compost which has the regulation which was set up by this Compost Net. But these regulations, according to my opinion [are] very high – for example if you say, for lead for example, it’s approximately one hundred milligrams per kilogram and this is too much.

EM: That’s too much?

GP: Yes, it’s too much for me, or for nickel, it’s twenty-five milligrams per kilogram, this is also too much. They should be more stronger.

EM: Okay interesting, and compost quality standards is an important and quite serious subject that unfortunately we don’t have time to get into right now since we’re running out of time, but George just to finish up – do you have any final words on the success of the composting program or?

GP: No no, we’re very happy to have this composting unit here. We’re very happy that we’re the first university which is using this solid waste management system within the campus. And, of course, many people are coming and visiting us, and I’m going everywhere and giving lectures on that, and I’m very happy.

EM: Well that’s great, that’s great news. Thanks for talking to us today, Georgios.

GP: Okay, thank you very much.

EM: Okay all the best.

GP: Okay, bye.

8
September
2013

Piles, Pitchforks, and Perfect Learning Opportunities: Why Colleges and Universities Should Choose Small-Scale Composting

Composting at Pomona College

By Jen Schmidt and Adam Long, Farm Manager at Pomona College, California

In this blog post, Jen and Adam describe the composting program in place at Pomona College and shares their vision on low-tech campus composting.

Shiny, expensive mechanical composters are increasingly popular at colleges and universities that want to compost their food waste, and rightly so. They offer a number of benefits, including reduced labor, minimal odor, and short composting times. At Pomona College, though, we have done things differently and we have come to believe that small-scale, low-technology composting is the way to go. A simple compost pile may not be glamorous, but the educational and environmental benefits of this method are more than worthwhile.

Starting in the mid-1990s, Pomona College students and staff members worked together to compost food waste by hand, that is, manually mixing leaves with food scraps and turning it with pitchforks on an abandoned patch of land on campus. When a formal composting program was finally established in 2009, Pomona College has composted its food waste at the on-campus organic farm. Rather than using expensive, cutting-edge composting machines, we use the simple pile method and do much of the work by hand. This is how simple we do it.

Compostable food scraps (pre- and post-consumer vegan food waste) are picked up from the dining halls by a student worker and transported to the Pomona College Organic Farm on an electric cart. At the “Farm” these food scraps are layered with mulch, leaves, and other campus green waste in a series of three piles, which can be up to six feet tall, ten feet wide, and fifteen feet long. Older compost is mixed in with fresh scraps to introduce the aerobic microorganisms required for composting to occur. The piles reach temperatures of up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit on their own simply from the microbe activity. A small diesel skip-loader (tractor) is used to turn and aerate the piles as they undergo the composting process, providing much needed oxygen to the organisms. After six to eight weeks, the piles begin to cool down and the finished compost is sifted and used to prepare beds for vegetable and fruit production at the Farm. Some compost is donated to community organizations and used in landscaping around the college.

At this point, you might be thinking that this sounds like a lot of work. Why choose such a smelly, dirty, labor-intensive method over a mechanical composter?

Consider the educational opportunities offered by this method. The vast majority of the composting program is run by students, and the physical work of maintaining the piles offers a valuable opportunity to see natural processes of decomposition and nutrient cycling in action. Observing the steam rise off a freshly turned active pile and sifting compost at various stages of the decomposing process with your hands teaches how microorganisms recycle nutrients in a way unmatched by any classroom lecture. Nutrient cycling (or recycling) is what makes compost so popular in organic farming, that is, returning minerals from green waste to the soil, making nutrients available to future crops. That is sustainability. Students who have worked with the compost program at Pomona College come away with a deeper understanding of what sustainability in agriculture really means thanks to their hands-on application of these principles.

Free-standing compost piles use a fraction of the energy of electric composting machines. Small diesel tractors are highly efficient and can run for months on only a few gallons of fuel. Everything else is manual labor.

Though compost piles have their drawbacks, high labor investment chief among them, it is sustainability in its essential and purest form. Our experience with small-scale, low-technology composting has been positive and iconic, and we suggest that other colleges and universities think twice about the educational and environmental potential of the lowly compost pile.