Compost: Turning our waste into a resource

Posted by Maranda Duval

Skidmore's commitment to environmental initiatives is evident all over campus. There are low-flow toilets, sinks and showers in the dorms. There is geothermal energy to meet the heating and cooling needs of the three newest buildings. There are even local options in the dining hall, including fresh produce from the organic student garden. Yet one very basic component of a sustainable campus is distinctly lacking: compost.

What exactly is compost? It's the end-result of decomposed organic materials such as plant matter and animal waste. Think apple cores, cucumber peelings, egg shells, coffee grinds, animal manure and grass clippings that have all been converted into a nutrient-rich, soil-like substance. Compost can be used as soil conditioner, fertilizer and even as a natural pesticide.

The environmental benefits of composting are widespread. By returning vital nutrients to the soil, it reduces the need for chemical pesticides and fertilizers (which can disrupt natural nutrient cycles). By diverting plant and animal wastes from landfills, it reduces the habitat destruction associated with building new landfills. And finally, by providing an aerobic environment for decomposition, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, specifically methane, which is produced when organic waste decomposes in anaerobic conditions.

It sounds good, but is composting a feasible task for Skidmore? Last year, two environmental studies majors, William Coffey and Nadine Dodge, wrote their senior capstone project on that exact question. Their final report, entitled "Composting at Skidmore College: Turning our Waste into a Resource," found that composting at Skidmore is not only feasible, but would reap numerous benefits for the college.

The report found that Skidmore currently produces approximately 4,521 cubic yards of organic waste every year in the form of food waste from the dining hall, lawn-maintenance byproducts and horse manure from Skidmore's stables. Dealing with this high volume of organic waste is not only a financial burden on the college, but it also presents an environmental challenge at an institution where "responsible citizenship" is written into the mission statement.

According to the study, if Skidmore captured and converted its organic wastes into compost rather than disposing of them, the institution could produce 2,260 cubic yards of finished compost per year. The finished compost could be used in the organic student garden and in campus flowerbeds and landscaping. In fact, it is likely that the college could replace all mulch and compost currently used on campus, which would save the college thousands of dollars per year.

It is estimated that only 500 of the 2,260 cubic yards of compost generated each year would be used on campus. The surplus compost (1,760 cubic yards) could be sold in the community at a profit estimated at more than $25,000 per year.

There is an abundance of support for composting at Skidmore, including students, faculty and staff members. Dan Rodecker, the director of Facilities Services, thinks that with the right management, the composting system could be "as successful as the student garden" (which produced over 1,000 pounds of food in its first year of production). Karen Kellogg, associate professor in the Environmental Studies program, believes that "composting at Skidmore is a low hanging piece of fruit financially [and] environmentally."

The paybacks of composting are clear, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to generating potential profits, to attracting prospective students and serving as a living laboratory for classes. Composting just makes sense. So what's stopping us? Adequate land? Capital investment? Widespread awareness and support? Kellogg said, "A compost system at Skidmore is going to involve lots of different entities on campus… Everyone needs to be on board."

To represent the student interest in composting at Skidmore, the student Environmental Action Club has developed a subcommittee specifically devoted to composting on campus. If you want to get involved, come to the EAC meetings on Mondays at 9 p.m. in Ladd Hall. If you don't have time for the meetings, send an email to expressing your support. As Kellogg puts it, "This is going to take commitment on everyone's part."

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