Composting program runs into heap of problems

With sustainability discussions underway, the search for environmentally sustainable solutions at Knox continues, but the composting system that was implemented during the fall as one such solution has, once again, seen a halt in progress.

“Well, I killed the worms a second time,” Director of Dining Services Helmut Mayer said of Knox’s vermicomposting system.

The system, which was funded several years ago by Student Senate, has been plagued with bad luck.

“Even the experts have no idea why that is the case,” he said.

During a previous failed attempt, the worms were lost due to heat. This time, however, “we did everything right, in terms of what we put in there and how much we put in there … Nobody’s really sure [what went wrong].”

“Helmut has done a very valiant job of making that work to the best of his ability,”  Sustainability Coordinator Shawn Tubb said.

Despite the insights of composting experts who have been contacted by email and phone for consultations, operating the vermicomposting system without an expert on site continues to prove challenging.

“It’s a very finicky system,” Tubb said. “The worms have to have the exact temperature, moisture level and pH to survive and thrive and to break down the food.”

Wind-rows, a traditional composting form, have been considered, as has an in-vessel composting system, but the former is not allowed under city ordinances, while the latter is expensive and resource-intensive and would require a difficult-to-obtain composting license.

The Student Sustainability Committee has also considered looking for students who might want to do independent research on solving the problems of the bin, but so far the most feasible option exists in the form of a private company: Artisan Organics.

A composting and organic farming company, it is considering opening in Galesburg this September and would be located in Galesburg’s Sustainable Business Center.

“There are just a lot of roadblocks, and so the fact that this independent company is opening up in Galesburg and could do a lot of the work for us … could solve a lot of our problems,” Tubb said.

Artisan Organics has already expressed some interest in helping Knox.

“She even wants to buy my bins,” Mayer said of the owner. “Instead of me doing it, I would give her the pre-consumer waste … and she can make a business out of it.”

The other major challenge facing Knox’s composting goals is that some things cannot be composted through the vermicomposting system even if it were running dependably. The system only takes pre-consumer material, meaning uncooked vegetable matter, such as onion peels, carrot peels and bad parts of potatoes.

This means that the compostable dishware, in which Student Senate invested in order to “completely eradicate Styrofoam from campus” cannot be processed, Tubb said.

Some post-consumer waste is going into a dehydrator which eliminates moisture, breaks it into carbon-like matter and creates a fertilizer. However, a significant amount of post-consumer food is not making it to the dehydrator.

On the bright side Mayer said whatever is not listed on the menu but appears in the cafeteria during any giving meal, is a leftover of some sort.

“I would say we use a good 95 percent of our leftovers,” he said.

Kiannah Sepeda-Miller, Associate News Editor
Kiannah Sepeda-Miller is a senior majoring in anthropology-sociology and double minoring in journalism and English literature. She began writing for TKS during her freshman year and served as co-mosaic editor as a sophomore. Kiannah studied and reported in Morocco under Round Earth Media in the winter and spring of 2015 and was subsequently published in Al Jazeera. She completed an editorial internship at New York magazine the following summer.

Tags:  bad luck composting helmut mayer mysterious worm deaths organic shawn tubb sustainability worms

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Kiannah Sepeda-Miller
Kiannah Sepeda-Miller is a senior majoring in anthropology-sociology and double minoring in journalism and English literature. She began writing for TKS during her freshman year and served as co-mosaic editor as a sophomore. Kiannah studied and reported in Morocco under Round Earth Media in the winter and spring of 2015 and was subsequently published in Al Jazeera. She completed an editorial internship at New York magazine the following summer.




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