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Students implement composting system for Beloit Urban Garden

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A block north of campus, behind the shed with the graffiti snail at the Beloit Urban Garden (BUG), tiny organisms are busy breaking down organic matter inside wire containers; the campus has started composting again, after years of intermittent attempts. Jennifer Pantelios’18 had been wanting to implement composting on campus since she arrived, and it finally became a reality when she worked as a Sustainability Fellow managing BUG this past summer, making composting her personal project. This semester she works on the Office of Sustainability’s Food Team as BUG and Composting Coordinator, a paid position Sustainability Coordinator Lindsay Chapman created.

After brainstorming with other interested students and professors, Dexter Kopas’18 joined the effort as part of the Office of Sustainability’s Waste Team. Kopas works closely with Pantelios in upstarting this “pilot system,” as Chapman called it, before adding collection bins in more locations. While the College’ three-year Sustainability Plan currently has no mention of composting, Chapman, who grew up composting, is excited about this new direction. “[A]s I think about ways to reduce our climate impact through cross-collaborations that involve taking waste and inputting that waste as a nutrient in our soil, the question became, why wouldn’t I support this?” she commented.

BUG mentor Betsy Brewer said the garden is making strides, and composting is a big part of that. “Prior to this past summer, composting was not taken seriously at BUG. The learning curve every summer has been enormous, and the fellows just did not get around to adding that along with everything else,” she said. Pantelios and Denys Godwin’18, the other Sustainability Fellow, tried new gardening techniques as they weeded and planted at BUG and the Community Sharing Garden.

Brewer said the garden is better organized. “We also bought some tools and a very helpful wagon which can be used to haul compost from campus to the garden.” Pantelios elaborated: “We put up fences to keep out the rabbits and laid down cardboard with wood chips on-top to suppress the weeds. We created deep beds to let the plants grow the roots much deeper versus sideways because the ground will not be constantly stepped on and compacted in those areas. We put newspaper and straw around plants that we wanted to keep more moisture in, and so on.” Pantelios is proud of their work and sees big improvements. “The neighbors even commented on how much our garden has improved from the past and last summer we barely produced anything in the front and now the soil quality is much better,” she said.

Members of BUG visited Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. to learn from their campus garden, called the Sustainable Lawrence University Garden (SLUG). While BUG’s circumstances prevent using SLUG’s model (SLUG is directly across from their dining hall, and close to coffee shops, while BUG is farther away), Brewer said this visit was helpful to “identify questions that needed to be addressed.”

Chapman provided funding for the buckets, and Pantelios and Kopas solicit student volunteers; since then, the piles have kept growing.

Pantelios plans to pursue a major related to Environmental Studies, as she strives to make more efficient use of resources. “Food waste really bothers me and I was on a mission to make use of the wasted resources for something useful,” she said. Food waste can be easily avoided, she said, “just by eating what is cooked and composting the raw and uncooked fruits and veggies that are not used in meals.” She hopes Beloit can be part of a global project of reducing waste. “In many places … [composting] is a part of regular life. If the rest of the world followed this model, our landfills would shrink tremendously just by taking that extra step.”

According the EPA, food scraps and yard waste constitute 20 to 30 percent of household refuse, which goes to a landfill where it cannot properly break down, creating the greenhouse gas methane, 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. However, residential composting is becoming more common in the US as local governments adopt new technologies and ordinances, according to Yale Environment 360.

While the logistics of the system are still being refined, Pantelios describes the general plan. Compost buckets have been left in strategic places around campus: Commons, DK’s and Java Joint, and the food coops (Big Spoon Dining Co-op in Kappa Delta, Outdoor Environmental Club’s co-op in their house; Vegan Co-op in 609 Emerson). The buckets are collected by student volunteers on specific days in the afternoon and transported in a utility wagon to the pile. This “green” matter is combined with “brown” matter, or leaves collected by Grounds Crew and left behind the library – and the whole thing is then turned every three days to oxidize and moisten the materials. Buckets are rinsed off with water, and returned to their location.

The decomposition process typically takes weeks or months for bacteria to create humus.The ideal ratio is 25:1 browns, which supply the carbon, to greens, the nitrogen, with some water. This process releases heat, as energy is created to be recycled back into soil. While compost will be collected year-round, Pantelios hopes it can be spread over garden beds in November, with a second bin starting in December. Plants can then use the enriched soil to grow again in spring and summer.

One challenge is preparing the compost system for winter, Kopas said. Vermicomposting is one option, in which worms “would help break down materials at a lower temperature, in addition to insulating the pile with a casing,” he said. The team is also busy trying to figure out the best ways to efficiently coordinate volunteers and publicize the new system. He hopes to “show students and faculty that composting is easy, [encouraging] them to make one themselves if they have a chance in the future.”

Another student-led composting initiative was abandoned in spring 2015 after a lack of proper management, according to Director of Residential Life John Winkelmann. He points to another effort by the College to reduce waste, however: a food dehydrator and pulper was installed in Commons, which extracts water from food waste to rinse dishes. After the dehydrator spins the remaining waste for 16-20 hours to remove moisture, 450 pounds of waste becomes eight pounds each day, according to the Office of Sustainability website.

This composting effort will likely continue as it becomes an ingrained shift, Chapman said – and is a paid position, at least for now.  “[W]hen [logistics and infrastructure] are done well, the whole community benefits from individual and collective habit.”

Anyone can contribute or help transport food waste. Fruit and vegetable waste such as egg shells, peels, as well as tea leaves and coffee grounds work well, but not cooked food, grease, dairy products or meat. BUG holds open workdays Wednesdays at 4 p.m., Fridays at 1 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m.

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