May 18, 2011

Composting project underway

At the culminating point of years worth of work, composting is now a reality on campus, and according to Josh Davidoff, ’10, the experiment will eventually manifest itself in many ways in the Knox community.

Davidoff, along with Director of Dining Services Helmut Mayer, gave a presentation Monday to a small group of students interested in how the process works and its benefits.

“I’m really excited about the benefits,” Davidoff, a current post-baccalaureate student, said. Davidoff advocated composting on campus during his undergraduate years, and he has used this year to continue his effort with Mayer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman.

By Davidoff’s estimate, waste could be reduced by 60,000 pounds per year, and a less frequent garbage pickup schedule could result in a $4,000 per year savings (the current contract for waste transportation is $17,000 per year).

The compost itself could be used around campus by the Buildings and Grounds department, by faculty and staff for their own gardens, for the community garden and for educational purposes, such as Schwartzman’s course on urban agriculture.

According to Davidoff’s estimates, the compost is valued between four to eight dollars per 40 pounds. But since the college is a nonprofit organization, it cannot be sold. However, Mayer can trade it with local farmers for reduced prices on their food.

“It’s really creating a symbiotic relationship between Knox and the community,” Davidoff said.

But despite those benefits, there are various associated costs as well. The method being used is a two-step process. First, post-consumer waste is added to the Somat machine, a dehydrator that reduces the volume of the waste and degrades it into what Davidoff calls “soil amendment,” which is mostly carbon-based organics.

That soil amendment is added to pre-consumer waste and layered in the composting bin with worms of the “red wiggler” variety. The bin is roughly eight feet long, five feet wide, and four feet tall. The worms eat their way up through the bin, leaving the compost at the bottom.

It was originally expected that the roughly $30,000 cost of the equipment needed would be paid in full from the restricted fund, but the Office of the President made a $5,000 contribution and $15,000 was covered by the Green Fee.

Other associated costs include two to three dollars per day in electricity costs to operate the dehydrator and one to two paid student employees in Dining Services to maintain the equipment and ensure a full daily output.

But the process is still far from that point. It is expected that there will eventually be a daily output of 40 pounds. On Monday when Mayer opened the drawer that collects the compost at the bottom of the bin, there was a mere dusting of compost. He explained that the start-up time for composting is about eight to 12 weeks, and it should be running in full force by the fall.

According to Davidoff, the worms need time to mature in regular soil, and they are still working to find the optimal ratio between pre-consumer waste and soil amendment from the dehydrator.

Davidoff will be on campus all summer, working to that end.

Charlie Megenity
Charlie Megenity (formerly Gorney) is a senior double majoring in political science and economics. He previously served TKS as managing editor and as co-news editor while working as the weekend reporter for The Galesburg Register-Mail. Over the summer of 2012, Charlie interned in Wisconsin with, an online hyperlocal news source, where he covered the August 2012 Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting; he will return to Patch during the summer of 2013. He is also the journalism editor for Catch magazine.. Charlie has received three awards from the Illinois College Press Association for newswriting and design, including a first place award for front page layout. He was the 2013 recipient of the Theodore Hazen Kimble Memorial Award in Journalism for a feature story published in The Knox Student. His work has also appeared in The Huffington Post.

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