by Dave Schwerin '07
In a new effort to make the Dickinson campus more sustainable and economical the campus expanded the composting program which was started last year. Formerly, the program only dealt with pre-consumer waste, or the vegetable scraps and grains left over from food production. The new drive, a collaborative effort among Physical Plant, the Student Garden, and Dining Services, allows students to dispose of excess food waste in bins specifically for the compost program. The bin's contents are collected at the end of the day by student garden workers, who drive the waste to a recently designated and outfitted location west of Dickinson Park on Route 11.
Composting is a human appropriation of the natural decay phenomenon which occurs in any healthy ecosystem. As any garden worker will reaffirm, the soil's amount of humus, or carbon and nitrogen rich, darkly colored organic matter, determines the health of the plants and animals in a given ecosystem. Bacterial breakdown of plant and animal wastes, such as leaves and carcasses, produces this nutrient rich dirt. Providing the proper mix of waste materials, aeration, and moisture encourages the proliferation of these bacteria to break down domestic waste. The compost produced at the new site will be used for landscape projects around campus, beautifying the area as well as strengthening the recipient trees and shrubs.
Obviously beneficial from an environmental point of view, the program also has economic advantages. Not only will the initiative prevent organic waste from taking up space in landfills; it will also reduce the cost of campus trash removal. Dickinson currently pays $45.50 per ton of garbage dumped at the Cumberland County landfill, not including wages for hauling, truck costs, fuel costs, equipment costs, operating fees, or any other costs associated with trash removal. Randy Nenninger, supervisor of Facilities Management, predicts that the program "should reduce our trash bill and ultimately result in a usable product for campus application."
Mr. Nenninger also cited the further economic benefit of ending the college's dependency on compost purchased from outside sources. While everyone benefits from the compost program, student response began slowly. "The program has gone well so far; the only problem is low participation," said Andy Sweger, assistant director of dining services, last fall. Most opinions cited a general lack of awareness, confirmed among the student body. "People are aware of the bins in the cafeteria, but they may not know about the process, the entire system, that student garden workers have put in place and the work they do to ensure that our degradable food is managed in a sustainable way," says Laurel Peterson '06. However, thanks to an aggressive advertising efforts and custom designed cafeteria bins, awareness has increased, as has the amount of waste for composting.
Ideally, the program's success will grow to rival those of already successful composting campuses, such as the University of California schools, Cornell University, and Middlebury College. The project's future seems hopeful to Jenn Halpin, director of the Garden. An increase in student participation would take the composting program to the next level, where the school would apply for a Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection grant application. "The grant would allow us to purchase the necessary equipment to intensify our composting efforts," says Halpin, who specifically mentioned a tractor specially equipped to turn compost rows for aeration, a better equipped transport vehicle, and specialized compost bins for the kitchen and dish room. Stay tuned in the fall for updates on the program and grant. Meanwhile, keep using those bins!