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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

Light Rain, 50 °F

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Art Trese

The University's first batch of compost was used to grow these tomatoes as part of a student project in Associate Professor of Environmental and Plant Biology Art Trese's class.

Photographer: Emily Martin

Compost

Associate Professor of Environmental and Plant Biology Art Trese oversees the University’s plant biology gardens, where University compost is in use..

Photographer: Emily Martin

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From plate to plate, compost initiative comes full circle

First loads of university compost used in Environmental Plant Biology Gardens


The hard work of many university members was put into action over the summer when the first load of compost was used in the Environmental Plant Biology Gardens.

Since January 2009, OHIO’s in-vessel composting system has been breaking down waste into usable compost under the direction of the Grounds Department within Facilities Management. 

Each load of food waste spends about 14 days inside the in-vessel machine, but additional curing at the site is needed to allow the compost to fully break down. This past June, the oldest material was judged to be ready to leave the facility and be applied to the soil.

Despite the wait, environmental benefits have been underway since the project’s inception, according to Director of Sustainability Sonia Marcus.

“Our primary goal with the project is to divert this organic waste from the landfill, so as soon as we start doing that, we’re doing good,” Marcus said.

With no rush to put compost on OHIO grounds, Marcus said that each step of the way has been deliberate. She called it a pioneering project and pointed out that many of the people involved are on a steep learning curve.

The choice to use the Environmental Plant Biology Gardens as the site for the first application was made because Ohio University students working in the garden are learning how to grow food using alternative agriculture techniques. Compost helps to maintain soil fertility without the use of chemicals, said Marcus, which is important for organic agriculture.

Associate Professor of Environmental and Plant Biology Art Trese oversees the University’s plant biology gardens. In Trese’s summer course about alternative agriculture, a student used the first batch of compost for a class project – heavily mulching her tomato beds with the compost.

“The tomatoes are very happy. They’re growing fast,” Trese said.

Trese said the best thing about the compost is that it is free of weed seeds, which decreases the necessity for weeding. Additionally, the compost is full of nutrients and is healthy for the soil, he added.

Since the class ended, Trese has been responsible for the upkeep of the gardens.

He planted and mulched fall vegetables using the compost, including spinach, turnips, lettuce and zucchini, and is trying to determine which ones do well in preparation for the switch to semesters, which will change the growing cycles for his class.

Trese completed the compost cycle – which begins and ends in the dining halls – when he brought a box of compost-grown squash and a box of tomatoes to Food Services on Sept. 29. He said the facility planned to use the vegetables in their cooking the following day.

Such involvement on many different levels is what Marcus enjoys most about the composting initiative.

“It involves so many different departments and stakeholders and people over time,” she said. “It’s hard to think of a project that actually touches more people on campus than this one does.”

Compost has been used in various areas across campus since the initial application. Facilities management can use the compost anywhere, but focuses on areas where they are trying to promote re-growth, due to construction or maintenance, or locations that have poor growing conditions.

Ohio University’s composter is currently the largest in-vessel composting system at any university or college in the country.

“It’s really been embraced by our university community, and I think it really is a source of pride for people on this campus,” Marcus said.

Expanding the facility

Over the next 12 months work will be done at the composting facility to expand the site through a $1.1 million grant awarded to Ohio University  through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The new equipment will triple the amount of material the site can accept to be composted.

Given the increased capacity, the University plans to begin accepting landscaping waste from the City of Athens, in addition to its own organic waste, when the expansion is complete.

The expansion will include: 

-An additional in-vessel composting system which will be able to accept four tons of material per day. Together with the current composting system, university will be able to accept six tons of material every day. 

-The solar array will be tripled in size and is projected to cover all the electricity for the expanded facility. 

-A solar thermal water system will be added and allow for hot water to rinse out the bins. 

-Another rain water harvesting system will be added so that the facility can continue to capture rain water. No municipal water is used at the site. 

Service ware will be grinded down by a new piece of equipment, and the hope is that it will allow it to decompose quicker.

Facts about composting:

-Food waste is very high in nitrogen, so bulking agents that are high in carbon, such as straw or woodchips, must be added to balance the two elements. Together, the chemical gases accelerate the decomposition process.

-Compost is a soil amendment. It is mixed back into soil to add nutrients to a garden or grounds area.

-Decomposing material creates a large amount of heat and, if applied too early, could burn the plants.

-The composter gets very hot and, in doing so, kills any seeds in the organic waste. Therefore, no weeds are grown in the compost.

-When organic waste makes its way through the composter, it is broken down to the point where food pieces are not evident so it does not attract animals or pests.