In 2009, with my retirement from Ohio University looming over me, I didn’t think my personal involvement in the construction and startup of a Class 2 compost facility on Ohio University’s campus 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’ periphery had to be moved to prepare the site, and then many yards of concrete were poured to construct the base of a metal pole barn, which would eventually house the composting machine.
Hauled by semi truck from Ottawa, Canada, the enormous composting machine was unloaded by crane and placed on the concrete pad. At times I wondered, “How’s this machine going to work?” But eventually, day-by-day, the entire process starting coming together like a huge three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
Green Energy and Water Features
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 uses leftover oil from the university’s facilities operations.
Skylights provide indirect lighting. The entire facility is self-sustainable. With a 10 kilowatt-per-hour system 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.
I asked a lot of questions. It was my job. As assistant director of grounds maintenance, ultimately my department personnel would be running this facility, so it was my job to assemble all components necessary to get this operation up and running. I became very involved in this process and my interest was piqued.
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. By pre-consumer waste, I mean fat trimmed from meat, potato peels, lettuce cores, cabbage cores, and dough leftover from baked goods. Post-consumer waste included 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.
Funding the Innovative Facility
Where did the money come from for this expensive project? 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.
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, in a recent interview tells me that, “Testing of biodegradable dinnerware, 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.”
How the Composting Facility Works
Steve Mack details the sequence of the composting process to me. Here are the main steps:
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 to 180 days, the material continues to decompose through a sifting process every 10 to 14 days.
Prior to my retirement in 2009, with the system up and running, I began to realize how important this one aspect of sustainability was being realized. I played a small part in the completion of this phase and felt a measure of accomplishment, both for myself and the university.
In 2012, the facility was expanded to process an additional 8,000 pounds daily, thus extending the daily composting output to 12,000 pounds.
Steve Mack explains where the expansion’s funding came from, “A grant was provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in the sum of 1,088,571 dollars. The university committed an additional 579,646 dollars of matching funds for the expansion and related costs.”
As of the writing of this article, records indicate the compost program has yielded almost 1.6 million pounds of compost since 2009.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.