Breaking Down Appalachian State’s Composting Efforts
It’s International Compost Awareness Week - but what does that mean? Most people know that you can compost kitchen scraps and dead leaves from the yard and it will break down into an amendment for gardens or flower beds, but what does that process look like on a larger scale?
Composting is nothing new at Appalachian State, which has had a program in place since 1999. The facility, located at State Farm, is permitted in the state of NC as a Type III compost facility, and has the ability to accept yard/garden waste, wood waste, pre- and post-consumer food wastes including meats and dairy, as well as manure and agricultural waste. In addition to the campus dining facilities, food waste is also collected from all campus residence halls, several academic buildings, and from large-scale campus events such as “Zero Waste” football games.
“Appalachian State values zero waste and sustainability, and we have spent many years on the development of the most effective program,” says Sustainability Program Manager Jen Maxwell. “We have addressed some of the challenges and barriers encountered, and we are now increasing efforts campus-wide. We are also expanding our student engagement with this program, which is a natural fit for higher education.”
Max Alff has only been the Compost Operations Coordinator since April, and he is excited about the room Appalachian has to expand production. “We’re producing about 175 tons of compost right now. We have room for 275 tons, so there’s lots of room to grow.”
Alff spends his time daily on various parts of the composting process. From collecting the food waste from campus, which he does three times each week, to checking on the batches, Alff’s days are busy with the business of turning waste into “black gold” for landscaping and gardening purposes on campus.
1,500 pounds of food waste goes into an industrial mixer with 1,500 pounds wood chips where it churns for 30 minutes before going into one of four bays in the aerated facility to “cook”. During the school year, he says it takes about a month to fill one of these bays, then it cooks for 2-3 weeks, which is the process of letting the organic material decompose with the help of aerators. This process produces heat, which he meticulously logs to assure that pathogens, seeds, and other contaminants are destroyed (the temperature has to stay above 140 degrees, if you’re curious).
After the cooking process is done, the compost is moved to a curing pile on campus, where it sits for 2-4 months to cool and finish the business of breaking down into nutrient-rich matter. When that is complete, the compost is screened to remove any remaining contaminants, and then distributed to landscaping services for flower beds and tree plantings, and to the campus gardens and the Sustainable Development farm in Todd to amend the soil for vegetable planting.
Maxwell considers composting to be an important step toward Appalachian’s zero waste commitment. “Over a third of our waste stream can be diverted from the landfill through this process. Not only does it benefit us as an educational tool, but it also allows us to close the loop and produce a quality product to use in landscape application.”