Whitman College Campus Composting Project
May 6, 2002
My initial goals for the Whitman College composting internship were as follows:
(i) To gain a personal understanding of composting: What is it? What is required in the process? Who can do it, and how time consuming is it?
(ii) To learn about Whitman College’s present composting activities,
(iii) To apply the “Will Composting Work For Us?” guidelines to Whitman College,
(iv) To assess whether or not the Whitman College campus should adopt a widespread composting program, and
(v) To develop recommendations for Whitman College’s composting activities.
Researching the process of composting was largely a personal initiative since I had little knowledge of the subject prior to this study, while the most important part of my internship lay in researching information that would help examine the feasibility of a campus-wide composting program. Using the Clean Washington Centre’s “Will Composting Work For Us?” guide book, my main objective was to analyse and evaluate the potential costs and benefits that composting has for Whitman College.
Background on Composting:
To begin my internship, I studied composting in order to gain a practical knowledge of the subject. What is composting? Composting is a natural process that, over time, converts organic material into a stable, nutrient-rich product called compost. At the microscopic level, microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi decompose the organic material (in the presence of oxygen) into simpler substances. Critical factors that affect the composting process are: outside temperatures, temperature of the compost pile, moisture, oxygen or aeration in the pile, particle size/surface area, carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, and how much the compost is mixed and turned. What can be composted? Any and all organic materials can be composted, such as food scraps, leaves and yard wastes, paper products, sewage sludge, and wood. Materials such as plastic, glass, rubber, ceramic, and metal may not be composted. Who can do it? Anyone can compost, since there are several different approaches to composting: backyard composting (geared toward individuals composting at home), on-site composting (for industrial, commercial, and institutional organizations), and centralized composting (which is usually organized by municipalities). The three basic types of centralized composting processes are the in-vessel method (organic material is composted inside a container), the aerated static pile method (organic material is formed into large piles), and the windrow method (organic material is formed into elongated piles). How time-consuming is it, and what is required in the process? The time required for composting varies, depending on the composting method. Whereas the in-vessel and windrow methods require close monitoring and systematic aeration and agitation, the aerated static pile method is only aerated, and not turned. What are the benefits? There are several benefits of composting, the most obvious one being reducing the amount of refuse that enters the waste-stream, thereby potentially cutting down on a company or individual’s landfill costs and conserving landfill space. Another advantage of composting is the production of a high quality soil amendment.
With some newly acquired background knowledge of composting, I sought out the landscape specialist at Whitman College, Bob Biles, in order to arrange an in-depth interview. The types of questions that I asked him arose directly from the “Will Composting Work For Us?” guide, as the guide offers a series of analyses that must be filled out with information relating directly to the institution or company that is interested in beginning a composting program. Questions on the analyses inquire as to how much refuse is generated each month, what materials are generated (e.g. yard and garden trimmings, food scraps, farm-related materials, biosolids, paper material, wood scraps), what the weather is like, what equipment and tools the organization already has that could be used for composting, who will provide the labour necessary, what the organization’s goals and risk acceptance is, operating history, soil product usage (how much is presently bought), and end uses for the compost that would be generated. Ultimately, the analyses are compiled and looked at simultaneously in order to form a large picture of what composting methods might be best for the company or institution.
Before going to the interview with Bob Biles, I also formulated a list of my own questions to ask him, to gain a simpler, and more immediately decipherable understanding of the present and potential composting activities at Whitman College. The questions that I asked from my own agenda were:
1. Who composts in the Whitman community?
2. What is done with the compost? Is any compost sold or used off-campus?
3. What type of composting method is used?
4. Have any efforts been done in the past to encourage more composting on-campus?
5. What do you see to be the potential benefits of a widespread composting program at Whitman? What about the negative aspects?
6. If such a program were to come into place, do you see the physical plant as having a role in the program, or would it be entirely student-run?
7. Could you think of a possible site for composting at Whitman College? How big would this site be?
After conducting the interview with Biles, I used the information that I gathered to the best I could in order to complete the many analyses that the “Will Composting Work For Us?” guide has laid out. The “Will Composting Work For Us?” decision guide is set up as a series of analyses, which, after completing each section, the decision-maker will mark down results on a scorecard. The guide then describes what levels of composting technology should be eliminated or preferred, according to the gathered data, and in the end, the decision-maker should be able to develop specific recommendations for the company or institution. Following, I will go through each section of the “Information Gathering” process and describe the process, results, and difficulties that I had with each section.
1. The first section is entitled “Refuse.” The technique outlined to calculate average tonnage per month is: “use refuse bills to tally your average dumpster capacity in cubic yards, then quantify what percentage is actually used. Multiply cubic yards by 175 lbs. To estimate average tonnage.” Biles reported that it costs $27.54/tonne to dump Whitman College’s refuse, and that Whitman College generates 610,900 lbs/yr, or 50,908 lbs/month (approximately 25 tonnes/month). Thus, Whitman’s monthly refuse bill would be approximately $688.50.
2. The second section is “Materials.” Several items are listed (yard and garden trimmings, food scraps, farm-related materials, biosolids, paper materials, wood—scraps/chips/sawdust, and other organic materials) and the task is to calculate the number of tons per month for each of the items by estimating the percentage of refuse tonnage each item represents and multiplying by the average tons of refuse per month. The suggested way to calculate this data is to “ask employees to separate the organic materials for a certain time period (day or week) and use these numbers to determine the percentage. Or, sort the organic materials from a full dumpster.” The guide suggests doing this sampling several times to increase reliability of data.
3. Under the section of “Weather,” I found the average rainfall per year in Walla Walla to be 19.6 inches. The average high and average low temperatures are 89.3 and 27.6 degrees Fahrenheit for the hottest and coldest months of the year.
4. Possible sites for the “Sites/Space” category are Whitman College-owned farmland, and a property near Borleske Stadium.
5. For the section of “Equipment,” the guide asks to indicate which items on a list that the organization has available for composting. Furthermore, general condition and the percentage of time each item would be available are also to be noted. Whitman College owns only one piece of equipment (chipper—in good condition and generally available for use) of the 11 items listed.
6. The “Labour” section asks a series of questions pertaining to what parties would be responsible for composting, whether or not management personnel would be available for the project, and what level of pay the personnel receive. Biles answered that the Whitman College Physical Plant would be in charge of the project, the Grounds Department would likely supervise the project, and their salary is “competitive.”
7. The “Goals” section requires my own interpretation of the extent of Whitman College’s interest in various potential goals or benefits of composting. Categories range from none-little-some-big-great, and my interpretations are as follows: Waste diversion (some), Production of high-quality compost (little), Cost savings (little), Education opportunities (some), Training or employment opportunities (little), and Public goodwill, marketing, or publicity (none). These results would depend, of course, on what type of composting project Whitman would implement, and whether or not students would be involved.
8. For the section entitled “Soil Product Usage,” the guide asks to indicate how much certain soil products such as compost, mulch, bark, and topsoil are purchased each year. Biles reported that of those four products, only a small amount of bark is purchased (approximately 100 cubic yards/year @ $15/cy = $1,500), which is used to suppress weeds, retaining moisture, adding nutrient value, but most importantly, because it is aesthetically pleasing. After speaking with Gary Brown, he added that Whitman occasionally buys a small amount (approximately 4 tons worth/year) of mulch or topsoil, but only on an as-needed basis such as for remediation of construction areas. Biles added that Whitman does not need any compost, but that if the product was there, it could just be added to the landscape as an additional topdressing.
9. The section pertaining to “End Uses” requires the decision-maker to rate, on a scale of 1-5, the organization’s interest in various end uses for compost. I asked Biles to complete this section of the analysis, and he marked only one category with a 5 (great use), and that was “Use it for new soil enhancement.” The other categories, “Give it away,” “Use it as a substitute for current products,” “Sell it to landscapers or to the general public,” and “Education value,” Biles marked as non-applicable.
10. The tenth section, “Capital and Operating Costs,” was difficult to complete, due to the nature of the questions. Examples of questions are as follows: “Evaluate your organization’s access to capital and on-going budget needs . . . What would be the maximum amount of money that your organization could raise or borrow for start-up costs (regardless of economic benefit)?” and “What number of years does your organization view as reasonable to payback capital investments such as a composting operation?” Biles informed me that it would be hard to procure money for a composting project of this sort, since not only is Whitman College already spending vast amounts of money on building and repair projects, but there is also currently a hiring freeze.
11. The section of “Risk Aversion” requires an assessment of how the organization in question responds to risk. On a scale of 1-5, I would guess that Whitman would accept some risk—I would assign a value of 3.
12. The last section of the Information Gathering process, “Operating History,” requires another assessment, on a scale of 1-5, of the organization’s experience producing or using compost or similar products. Biles reported that each of the areas of “Responsible department,” “Responsible management individual,” and “Facility crews” have great composting experience, therefore, he assigned a value of 5.
* * * * *
The answers to my personal questions were simple. Biles answered that to the best of his knowledge, there are no significant on-campus composting projects, but that some individuals, like himself, may compost. Biles collects leaves and small amounts of kitchen waste from food service from campus and carts them to his own small organic farm where he composts. Questions 2, 3, and 4 were not applicable, however, and Biles answered that if a composting program were to be enacted at Whitman, the potential benefits would be to have compost to add to flowerbeds. But, presently, no compost is added (except for sometimes some woodchips), and the flowerbeds survive well on their own. Biles explained that the soil on campus is dynamic on its own, and needs very little to no added fertilizer or mulch at all.
In response to the question of who Biles saw as running a widespread composting program at Whitman College, he responded that the physical plant would have to have the main role in the program, as students would be unreliable because the composting program would not be their first priority.
In terms of a possible site for composting, Biles reminded me of several obstacles: lack of space, government regulations, and landfill fees are incredibly cheap in this area. After probing further about any possible suggestions for a site, Biles answered that there is no feasible area on campus to compost, thus the site would have to be off-campus. The biggest factor affecting choice of site would be close proximity, for carting organic materials to remote Whitman College-owned farmland would be out of the question because of added transportation costs. Biles half-heartedly suggested the Whitman College-owned property by Borleske Stadium; nonetheless, this property is in a residential district, which is generally undesirable for a composting operation since the process can generate putrid odors and may disturb neighbors.
In addition to the interview, Biles gave me a spreadsheet of all campus-generated wastes for the month of February, 2000 (the most recent data), which was divided into weekly totals for various residence halls, administrative buildings, and academic buildings, etc. From these numbers, and using the categories of “Jewett kitchen,” “Prentiss kitchen,” “vegetative waste,” and “landscape waste,” I calculated the campus total organic waste for February, 2000 to be 34,574 lbs. However, this calculation could be somewhat misleading, since there is undoubtedly much non-organic waste generated in the Jewett and Prentiss kitchens. Comparatively, buildings such as the Baker Faculty Centre and the Student Union Building must generate organic waste in their small kitchens, yet there is no way for me to tell how much of their waste total is compostable.
After compiling the required information, I found the subsequent analyses to be problematic, as there were gaps in all areas of my data. Many areas in several of the sections were either not applicable to Whitman College, or else Whitman does not keep track of the required data.
Additionally, I feel as though some data is virtually unattainable at Whitman, because the college is so fractioned into different groups and buildings. Obtaining the data requires effort in so many areas by so many people: for instance, in collecting information regarding the percentage of refuse tonnage on each item of the list, each individual building on campus would have to (a) sort all organic materials from the dumpster, and (b) each carry out the task in exactly the same manner so as to achieve accurate results. Obtaining such data requires effort in so many areas by so many people that I feel as though unless this study was of utmost priority to Whitman College, then there would be no way to realistically calculate and accurately obtain the required data.
Furthermore, I feel that a newcomer to composting, like myself, is not the best user for this guide, since questions often require best judgment and rating various components on scales of 1 to 5, or 1 to 10. For instance, on the “Siting Analysis,” I do not feel adequately authorized to make a judgment as to how well I perceive the “Leachate Control” of a particular piece of land for a composting project. Likewise, I do not feel as though I could make an accurate decision as to the quality of “Infrastructure” of a piece of land. Thus, my personal limitations are also a factor in the effectiveness of the survey.
What Can Be Done:
Although there were limitations with the “Will Composting Work For Us?” assessment guide, based on the information provided by Biles, and with my new knowledge of composting, I feel as though, at this point, it might not be feasible for Whitman to adopt a locally-based campus wide composting program. Siting space for such an operation is lacking, or undesirable; there is no economic incentive not to cart refuse to the dump, as dump fees are so inexpensive; and such a program would require decent effort from numerous areas/buildings/kitchens on campus, who might not be willing to put in the required work. However, there is a composting company located in Walla Walla that might provide an alternative solution to simply taking all organic materials generated on campus to the dump. The Walla Walla county has partnered with Columbia Composting to provide a composting service, located in the Eastgate area. Although the company only accepts dumping of yard waste, the cost is $5 per vehicle load and $10 per dump truck load of materials. The Whitman landscaping crew could potentially take landscape wastes to this company if it proves economically beneficial, or worth the environmental benefits.
Directions for Future Studies—New Survey Design!
The problems encountered while trying to carry out this particular composting analysis lead me to believe that the assessment is geared toward larger institutions than Whitman College, such as a state university—or simply an institution with larger, more specialized department divisions (eg. Cornell’s Waste Management Institute or Farm Services). Also, in the “Information Gathering” sections, questions and lists seem aimed toward an institution that houses an established farm services or agricultural department. For example, in the “Equipment” section, items listed include a manure spreader and aeration equipment; and in the “Materials” section, items listed included farm-related materials and biosolids.
Despite not being able to use the “Will Composting Work For Us?” guide in the way that the guide was designed, Whitman College could use the same principles outlined in the guide to develop a new analysis. A new analysis could be developed that is less empirical, and would make a qualitative assessment of which type of composting method is most appropriate to adopt, or whether or not to adopt any method at all. This future work would require a more in-depth investigation into the methods and intricacies of composting because, ultimately, not only would the decision-maker need to be aware of Whitman’s current refuse and recycling practices, etc., but he or she must also ultimately apply his/her profound knowledge of composting to the best technology of composting. I feel that a qualitative approach would work best for this project, as it is simply too difficult to quantify Whitman’s data (at least in the method outlined in the Clean Washington Centre manual) in order to force it to fit the analyses.
Some positive aspects regarding this internship were that I learned the basics of composting, and many elements involved in the process. Furthermore, I understand that there are several different types of composting, and the composting technology of choice depends on many critical factors particular to each individual, company, or institution that engages in composting. I particularly enjoyed compiling the data and research at the end of the internship, for I was able to see that my frustrations throughout the semester while carrying out the “Will Composting Work For Us?” guide were not entirely in vain; perhaps another intern will continue the investigation into a composting activity at Whitman College.
Negative aspects regarding this internship deal almost uniquely with time commitment. A difficulty that I had was allotting at least a couple of hours each week to dedicate to the internship. Nonetheless, I don’t see this as having been a huge problem, for I was able to do my work on my own agenda; if I had more time available one week than another, I was able to put in more effort for a longer period when the time was available.
Bob Biles (Whitman College Landscape Specialist) Physical Plant 527-5999
Columbia Composting; 522-1213
Walla Walla County; 527-3282
Clean Washington Centre, E and A Environmental Consultants, and Sound Resource Management Group. Will Composting Work For Us? A Decision Guide for Managers of Businesses, Institutions, Campuses and Other Facilities. Seattle, WA: CWC, 1997.
“25 Questions and Answers About Composting.” The Composting Council of Canada. 14 Apr. 2002 <http://www.compost .org/qna.html>.
“Composting Case Studies: Cornell University.” Cornell University. 14 Apr. 2002 <http://www.cfe.cornell.edu/wmi/Compost/CaseStudies.html>.
“Composting Case Studies: Keene Central School, Keene, N.Y.” Cornell University. 14 Apr. 2002 <http://www.cfe.cornell.edu/wmi/Compost/Keene.html>.