January 11, 2012

Worms cooked in composting roadblock

The campus composting project, which was set in motion last spring and projected to produce a regular daily output by last fall, has been set back for at least another three months after the worms used had almost literally been cooked alive.

According to Dining Services Director Helmut Mayer, who oversaw the project, it has been a learning experience for everyone involved, including Josh Davidoff, ’10, who facilitated the project as a post-baccalaureate last year. The process has seen some speed bumps, including issues with controlling acidity and temperature.

The temperature problem was identified last fall, Mayer said, but not enough was done to fix the problem.

“The acidity was less of a problem than the heat,” Mayer said. “I think I killed most of the worms. … Maybe I didn’t do enough when I had the heat problem.”

Mayer said he has ordered more worms, and he does not yet have to worry about the heat problem due to the winter weather. Mayer expects a full daily output, up to 80 pounds of compost per day, in about three months.

Senate Sustainability Chair sophomore Max Potthoff said he understands the initial issues with the system, and he hopes for progress soon.

“Obviously since it’s new this year, there’s going to be some trial and error,” Potthoff said. “But I’d like to be doing stuff with the compost … by the end of the year.”

The system developed by Davidoff is a two-step process, including a Somat dehydrator, which turns post-consumer waste into carbon-based organics. That material is mixed with pre-consumer waste and added to the compost bin with the worms. The equipment, which cost a total of around $30,000, was paid for with the Green Fee, the Senate restricted fund and a contribution from the President’s Office.

The system does work and produces good compost, according to Mayer, but the delays are due to the variables, which need to be controlled.

“The system works. Whatever was there on the top layer was excellent soil,” Mayer said. “So the system works as designed, but I guess I wasn’t really careful enough.”

This setback has also led to the loss of student employment on campus. Since there is now so little work to be done each day, Mayer has eliminated the two student worker positions which were created through the Green Fee.

“It’s not even enough for one student working two hours a day. It’s about an hour for one student a day,” Mayer said. “There’s no sense in having somebody here for an hour.”

Mayer said once there is a regular output, he will re-hire one student to feed the worms and bag the compost, but “until then, I’m just going to do it myself.”

Potthoff, who is still optimistic about the project, said, “It was a lot of money, and people want to see it being put to use and working. It was a big investment … but I think it will pay off.”

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 Patch.com, 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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