AASHE Student Diary Series: From 'Compost Lady' to Compost Campus
In this installment of the AASHE Bulletin Sustainability Student Diary series, we revisit the campus compost project of Camille Delavaux at Lehigh University. Then a first-year earth and environmental science student, Delavaux shared the ups and downs she experienced while organizing efforts toward a campus-wide composting initiative in her May 2011 post. Now a junior, Delavaux is in the midst of piloting a project to compost all of the waste Lehigh produces on-site. We hope to see questions and feedback in the comments area! Submit diary entries of your own for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my last entry, I wrote about my preliminary composting research at Lehigh University as a first-year student. I am now a junior and compost research has remained an important part of my life and studies. I’ve continued to visit and do research on composting systems throughout the United States. Partnering with fellow student Rachel Henke (with much help from the university), we are now coordinating and operating an on-campus compost pilot program. After a semester of running the pilot program, we will create a proposal that outlines financial and environmental comparisons to current practices, and supply a plan for Lehigh to compost all of the waste it produces on-site. I never expected to create change this intensely in my university. Here is the story of how two motivated students, along with hours of work and a supportive advisor, worked with their university to move campus composting forward:
I had been doing composting research for two semesters when I decided to do something. An extremely daunting task as a 19-year-old, I decided I wanted to run a composting system to show my university how easy and effective it really is. The project, Garbage to Gold, was born. Really, the decision was pretty impulsive. I did have two semesters of research, questioning, reading and traveling behind me, but I was aware that there was still a great deal I did not know. I was coming back from Pittsburgh after attending the AASHE 2011 conference. I’m not exactly sure what spurred it, but I remember typing up my notes on the ride back, trying to connect what I had learned with my project, becoming frustrated in theoreticals, and typing myself a response. I told myself to start, because that was the only way to ensure change.
"I told myself to start, because that was the only way to ensure change."
In the best timing I could imagine, one of my sorority sisters, Rachel Henke, told me she thought composting was neat. "Hey, do you want to plan and run a composting system with me?” I asked, and her answer was "yes." From there ensued a barrage of meetings, emails and calls. This was going to happen. We were definitely overworked our sophomore semester as we worked to make this project happen. Both of us were taking an above average load of classes, compost not included.
We had meetings and emails going without pause to our sustainability director, dining services, facilities manager, groundskeeper, Environmental Health and Safety Department, Earth and Environmental Science Department, and our advisor Dork Sahagian. We had to show that we were prepared and had planned out the following:
- what to put the compost in
- how, when and who would pick it up
- where it would go
- how we would turn it
- what probes we planned on using and why
- how we would protect ourselves
- how we would ensure reliability from one another
Once we determined the back third of the university’s community garden as the location for the pilot, we discussed:
- road access
- how we would mitigate odor and pests
- how to communicate with the gardeners
- how to clean out the buckets
In addition, throughout this semester, we applied for half a dozen large grants. We wrote essays and made a specific budget for all that we would need for a successful pilot. We received two grants: the College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Grant and the Green Fund. Our university’s support was not only in words, but in financial backing. Rachel and I also presented at the College of Arts and Sciences’ research symposium as well as the Earth and Environmental Science symposium.
After another month of fine-tuning the seemingly thousands of issues with our project, we left abroad for a break. I went to India and Rachel went to Iceland. Out of the country, we were still sending a few emails about composting. When we returned, we got back to work. The school year approached very quickly. We were collecting waste the second day of school. Here is how it works:
We pick up waste twice a week from one of our two main dining halls, Psi Upsilon, a fraternity, and Kappa Alpha Theta, our sorority. We pick up about 150 gallons of waste a week. This is about one-fifth of dining service’s compostable waste. A friend, Dan Coviello, lets us use his truck to pick up the waste. We drive about five minutes up the hill that Lehigh is on to Goodman Campus. We then dump the waste into our windrow and out bins (we have one continuous windrow and two bins). We then use probing material to continuously monitor the windrow and bin temperature and moisture every 10 minutes. We measure pH four times a week.
This might seem like it’s not too intense. It isn’t when everything goes our way. But the norm is that something unpredicted needs our attention. When we end up running a Windows software on a virtual machine on my Mac, our job becomes fixing a computer problem. When facilities built us a road and we did not realize we were responsible for a gate, our job is to figure out how to get a gate. When my professor requests that we give a presentation, or when Green Action asks if we can give a tour, our job becomes teaching. We are constantly learning as we go in order to make our pilot work. We have been very grateful to Jon Witt, a chemical engineer sophomore, for his eagerness to help us whenever we have an issue. We have also been trying to document and take as many pictures and notes as possible. As mentioned at the start of this entry, our ultimate goal is to convince and show Lehigh University that composting on-site makes sense on both financial and environmental levels. Any feedback is welcome!
Please visit our Garbage to Gold Facebook page to stay updated on our project!
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