A Gizmo worker waits as another student sorts each piece of their trash into the proper bin. When they leave, the worker takes the bags from the bins labeled ‘Compost’ and ‘Landfill’ and throws them both into the same gray trash can outside on the Gizmo patio.
“We’re not composting any of it,” Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman said about food waste at Knox.
Knox’s Somat machine, which dehydrated and sterilized much of the campus’ food waste to prepare it for composting since its purchase in 2011, stopped working in February 2017. This, along with the disposal of the faulty vermicomposting machine before that, means that all of the food waste Knox College produces has been going to the landfill.
Schwartzman blames the lengthy suspension on a lack of communication over the state of composting on campus as well as a lack of action to find an alternative or intermediate solution.
“I think a lot of students want composting,” Schwartzman said. “The fact that many of them don’t realize that we are not composting is a problem. I think if more people were aware of it and participated in the process . . . we could find short-term and long-term remedies more easily.”
First-year Grace LaDuca, who is currently taking Schwartzman’s class Sustainability: Exploration and Opportunities, added that many people on campus seem unaware of what composting involves. Part of LaDuca’s project for the class is to facilitate composting through the tumblers on campus.
“We want to do composting – on a much smaller scale – with the tumblers,” LaDuca said. “Right now they’re filled with trash.”
LaDuca’s proposal goes along with Schwartzman’s in suggesting that machines are not required for composting. Though on a smaller scale, composting the waste from campus houses through the tumblers would at least process some amount of food.
Director of Sustainability Initiatives Deborah Steinberg is also looking into getting the houses to better utilize the tumblers, but ultimately believes that acquiring a new machine is the most effective solution.
Once the Somat machine stopped working, Steinberg decided not to make an announcement so that students would continue to put their food into the composting bins. She felt the problem would be resolved sooner than a year.
“We’ve kept the three bins in the Gizmo so that the behavior stays there,” Steinberg said. “The hope was that this would all be figured out a little bit quicker. We’re getting to the point where we need to do something. I sometimes think that people didn’t know we were composting in the first place.”
Steinberg came to Knox in November 2015 and was quickly briefed on all the ways the college tried and failed to compost in the past. Before Steinberg arrived on campus, Knox tried composting with the dry waste from the Somat machine; a vermicomposting machine, where small worms turn food waste into compost; and at the Knox Farm. Composting at the farm involved what Steinberg calls “backyard composting,” where some of the food waste went to mix with leaves in order to make nutrient rich compost for the soil there. Excess compost often went to local farmers.
“You need to have a balance of greens and browns so the carbon mixes with the nitrogen,” Steinberg said. “So if you have a pile of only the greens without any of the browns, like dried leaves, saw dust, that kind of stuff, then it’s not decomposing . . . you don’t have the right balance to actually decompose, it’s just rotting.”
The rotting food waste sitting outside of the farm created an odor that led neighbors to complain. Composting outside is no longer an option for Knox unless it gets permission from the City of Galesburg. On top of that, says Steinberg, composting outside is not capable of dealing with the amount of food waste Knox College produces every day.
“We create an average of 250 pounds of food waste a day of both pre- and post-consumer waste – so that’s both cooked and not cooked food,” Steinberg said. “That’s not counting what Food Recovery Network (FRN) diverts.”
According to junior Meryl Davis, president of FRN at Knox, the organization diverts an average of 50 to 100 pounds of food daily to local people in need. This food, however, is food that is not thrown away. It never leaves the kitchen before it is diverted.
Steinberg is looking into purchasing an in-vessel composting machine, which mechanically turns food waste to create an actual compost product. She estimates the in-vessel machine will cost over $100,000. This is compared to the approximately $30,000 used to buy the old Somat machine. However, the price of the machine is not the only factor in terms of cost.
“It’s also not just the machine, but depending how we want to run it – we used to pay wages for students to run it,” Steinberg said. “Then we might also need to consider location, so do we need to build a structure for it . . . which is why I’m taking my time with my proposal because it’s an investment. I think there’s value in it, but I think there’s value in doing it right.”
Composting and other environmental initiatives were taken up in part to compete with other colleges similar to Knox and attract more students. Other Associated Colleges of the Midwest schools, such as St. Olaf College, compost all of their food waste through an in-vessel machine. Macalester College hauls their food waste to a compost vendor, which Steinberg believes would be the simplest solution if they were available.
“I meet with colleagues from other schools and they say they have three or four vendors in the area,” Steinberg said. “We don’t have that. There are no local composters within a two hour drive of here.”
Schwartzman pointed out that composting at Knox is a relatively new practice.
“10 years ago, nobody was talking about this,” he said. “It was normal to be throwing all of our food away and now there’s an expectation that we should do something about it, which I think is a really powerful change in the culture.”
The quiet halt in composting may reveal the difficulties in operation as well as a lack of awareness, but Schwartzman believes it is still worth pursuing an answer.
“There’s so many educational opportunities here,” Schwartzman said. “I think 250 pounds of waste that could otherwise be used for productive purposes is a significant problem. There must be a cost-effective way to solve it. Maybe I’m overly optimistic about it . . . if it’s a priority to us, we can do it.”