By Monica Chapman
A small crowd of students broke into applause Tuesday afternoon as a flatbed truck lumbered uphill from Dairy Lane under the weight of a mammoth load: a composting unit that will allow Ohio University to divert up to a quarter of its solid waste from the landfill.
Capable of processing up to 28 tons of compostable material at any given time, the unit is the largest in-vessel system of its kind on a U.S. college or university campus.
In-vessel composters process waste within enclosed reactors, using controlled temperature, moisture and aeration to accelerate the natural pace of decomposition. Ohio University will use its unit, which converts waste to nutrient-rich soil in just 14 days, to compost biodegradable waste from multiple campus locations beginning this fall.
"Ohio University is beginning to emerge as a leader in the area of energy, environment and sustainability," said Sustainability Coordinator Sonia Marcus, who was among about a dozen spectators who gathered to witness the unit's arrival. "The composting project is an example of our demonstrated commitment to these areas, allowing us to put theory into practice."
Ohio University staff worked into the evening to install the 10-ton stainless steel composter at 137 Dairy Lane, west of The Dairy Barn Arts Center. A crane lifted and placed the main composting unit -- painted Bobcat green -- onto a concrete pad within the frame of a pole building. Individual pieces, which arrived on a separate truck Tuesday morning, were then secured to the main unit.
Even the unit's power source is renewable. A solar array will provide 50 percent of the composter's energy usage.
The system, from Wright Environmental Management Inc., is designed to process food waste, biodegradable packaging materials, landscaping waste and other organic materials. The grounds department will operate the system, which will provide compost for campus landscaping projects.
"The whole idea is that everything that comes off a consumer's plate will go into a bin that will ultimately end up in the composter," said Director of Maintenance and Operations Mick Harris, who is coordinating construction of the composting site.
Harris and a crew of about 15 Ohio University employees will serve as lead contractors for the composting project. Harris said the goal is to begin running the composter 14 days prior to its dedication on Oct. 4. If the timeframe is met, the unit will produce its first batch of compost just in time for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. From that point on, the unit will run continuously, making daily deposits of compost.
"It's kind of a neat and unique project," Harris said. "It's an exciting thing to be a part of."
Maintenance staff is not the only university group to express enthusiasm for the project. Marcus said several faculty members wrote letters of support for the endeavor, and some have voiced an interest in utilizing the composting unit to enhance their classroom instruction.
Among them are Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Ben Stuart, who wants to involve his environmental engineering and waste management classes in field trips and analysis using the composter, and Assistant Professor of Geography Harold Perkins, who plans to utilize the composter to supplement his introductory and urban sustainability courses.
For Marcus, the composter is one of many milestones on the long road toward minimizing the university's ecological footprint.
She turns to renowned architect and sustainability advocate Bill McDonough for inspiration. In his book "Cradle to Cradle," McDonough champions the philosophy that waste is food, meaning waste from one process can fuel other processes.
"Unfortunately, modern human society seems to have strayed from this principle by generating huge amounts of waste that we struggle to manage," Marcus said. "Composting our organics is one very important way that Ohio University will move toward a zero waste model."
The Ohio University composting project was launched in January 2007 in conjunction with the opening of the new Baker University Center. The West 82 food court, which boasts biodegradable serviceware, will be a large supplier to the composter.
The cost of the composter was covered by two grants totaling $300,000 from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Recycling and Litter Prevention. An additional $35,105 from the Ohio Department of Development's Energy Loan Fund Grant Program helped fund the 10.03-kilowatt solar array intended. The system also features a built-in bio-filter, which filters gases and significantly reduces odors.
To speak with a media contact about this story, please contact Sustainability Coordinator Sonia Marcus at 740-593-0026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was updated at 3:09 p.m. Friday, Aug. 29, 2008, to clarify that the capacity of the composter makes it the largest of any in use at a U.S. university.