Campus Composting

In 2009, with my retirement from Ohio University looming, I didn’t think my personal involvement in the construction and start-up of a class 2 campus composting facility would develop into such a large operation. Class 2 compost (according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency) consists of yard, agriculture, animal, or food waste, plus a bulking agent.

To get this project underway, thousands of yards of dirt on the campus’s periphery had to be moved to prepare the site and many yards of concrete were poured to construct the base of a metal pole barn, which would eventually house the composting machine.

Hauled by truck from Ottawa, Canada, the enormous composting machine was unloaded by crane and placed on the concrete pad.

The vertical posts were installed and metal siding attached. For power, electricity was connected and the solar array installed. Today, the Ohio University Composting facility also boasts a solar thermal system and waste oil heaters that use leftover oil from the university’s facilities operations. Skylights provide indirect lighting. The entire facility is self-sustainable. With a 10 kilowatt-per-hour built in 2009 and a 31.1 kilowatt-per-hour system added in 2012, the solar array produces more energy than is used in the operation.

Slowly, the facility came together. The rainwater collection cistern that provides all the water for the facility’s operation was installed, earthen ditches called bio-swales were emplaced, and the extensive leach field laid.

The University bought a truck to haul all pre-and post-consumer food waste to the site. The truck would also bring the wood chips that were needed for the waste bulking agent. Pre-consumer waste includes fat trimmed from meat, potato peels, lettuce cores, cabbage cores and dough leftover from baked goods. Post-consumer waste includes items not consumed in the dining hall like banana peels, apple cores, etc.

Another part of my responsibility was training the waste facility’s employees. This was a monumental endeavor. The job training all seemed very technical at the time but with repetition everything became easier to understand and we learned our jobs well.

Funded in part by a grant from the Division of Recycling and Litter Prevention with the Department of Natural Resources, the original 2009 start-up costs totaled nearly $350,000, with an overall cost of $800,000 dollars.

Annie Laurie Cadmus, OU’s director of sustainability describes the composting program’s role as, “Diverting organic materials from the landfill, then transforming that waste into essential nutrient rich soil amendment.” She adds, “Currently, this processed amendment is used on intramural fields, community gardens and campus flower beds. Ohio University is one of the nation’s most environmentally sound campuses.” The facility, she continues, “affords opportunity for research studies and educational components such as soil analysis, and sociological impacts.”

Steve Mack, the university’s facilities management director, says, “Testing of biodegradable dinner ware, made from corn based resin or cane fibers, is ongoing, as well as food containers. Recent success has been shown using Polylactic Acid (PLA) service ware.”

Campus Composting Process

Mack details the sequence of the composting process:

  1. Food waste and wood chips (bulking agent) are hauled into the facility via Schaefer carts (plastic bins with wheels).
  2. The metal in-vessel compost machine is loaded with food waste and wood chips, at a ratio of 2:1 by weight. Once mixed thoroughly the material enters the enclosed processing structure.
  3. For the next 14-15 days through a controlled process of airflow, moisture levels, and a regulated temperature (ranges between 120-150 degrees Fahrenheit), a constant mixing process initiates the breakdown into an organic matter. As a result of this organic matter breaking down, there is little or no noxious odor emitted due to bio-filter control.
  4. After the two-week period of processing through the vessel, the material is removed and placed into a static pile for continued decomposition. This pile is frequently blended to assist in the removal of unwanted non-biodegradable matter.
  5. From there, the material is placed in a large field in linear rows where for the next 90-180 days, the material continues to decompose through a sifting process every 10-14 days.

In 2012, the facility was expanded to process an additional 8,000 pounds daily, extending the daily composting output to 12,000 pounds.

“A grant was provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in the sum of $1,088,571,” said Mack. “The university committed an additional $579,646 matching funds for the expansion and related costs.”

The program has yielded nearly 2 million pounds of compost since 2009.

By Dave Hamill

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