Will Bowdoin Go Compostal?

Story posted April 11, 2013

Composting: the last frontier for people trying to minimize their waste output? Perhaps, but it is not the easiest behavior to encourage in a culture that is still warming up to recycling. Here at Sustainable Bowdoin, we are taking a hard look at what we can do as a campus to reduce our waste and that includes the compost conundrum.

The EPA estimates that 8% of Americans compost. For the other 92%, we collectively contribute approximately 34 million tons of food scraps to the waste stream. That big number results in about 13% of the landfill waste. People expect the number of composters to increase in the coming years, though. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon have curbside composting, with cities like Boston exploring similar options.

A sure sign of composting’s emergence on the "mainstream" spectrum is the rising number of bans on yard waste and food waste in conventional trash. Sustainable Bowdoin learns from colleges and universities in states where such laws are in place. Massachusetts, a state mulling over such a ban, could serve as Sustainable Bowdoin’s laboratory because of its proximity to Maine. Based on the trials and errors of schools there, we have an opportunity to improve the composting programs we currently have on campus.

Two large organic waste diversion programs exist at Bowdoin. First, the Grounds Crew composts leaf litter and fallen branches and limbs in a site on the outskirts of campus. This detritus-turned-mulch is then applied to campus landscapes with the help of Country Fare, an outfit in the nearby town of Bowdoin, Maine.

The second program is Dining. While Dining does not compost their food waste and pre-consumer scraps, the smaller of the two dining halls, Moulton Union, does deliver most of its pre- and post-consumer organic waste to a local pig farm (Thorne's pre-consumer waste also goes to the pigs). Michael Brooks of Bowdoin, Maine receives over one and a half tons of food waste for his pigs and cows, a symbiotic relationship that started in 2008.

Green cones, or half-buried plastic containers, located outside of Burnett, Ladd, and Mayflower Apartments, and compost bins at Reed and Quinby-MacMillan House allow college house members and the intrepid apartment dweller to throw their food scraps into the ground. The green cone design allows worms to work their magic through slots that expose the waste to the dirt walls.  

Bailey Moritz ’16, Sustainable Bowdoin's composting coordinator, monitors the green cones and compost bins regularly. Moritz sees her job as primarily education-based. “I think that education is very important for a successful composting system,” says Moritz, who attends college house meetings to encourage proper composting behavior. “When everyone is aware of the significant impact of the action and the ‘why,’ they will be much more likely to participate than if they are merely told to [compost].”

Thanks to the persistence of some office eco reps, too, a handful of offices have decided to compost. Deb Puhl, of the Theater Department and Kelsie Tardith of Annual Giving both collect food waste in their buildings’ kitchens and deliver it to the closest green cone (or bring it home). While this method is not for every office, it certainly helps get people thinking about food waste.

The Future of Composting at Bowdoin

February and March at Bowdoin was Recyclemania, and in order to reduce our campus’s trash output, Sustainable Bowdoin introduced a pilot composting program in the first year dorms. Using 5 gallon buckets from Dining, students could compost in the trash rooms of their respective dorms. The pilot garnered hundreds of pounds of food waste that was then added to the pig food bins in Moulton or in the green cones around campus.

What is next? According to Moritz, improving composting at Bowdoin will involve designating students to empty collection bins, encouraging changes in student behavior, and expanding green cones or other compost options to more of campus. “Composting in other college buildings like on College Street, such as where the Food Co-op meets, would be great to work on. Also, I would like to create an option for upperclassman apartments that have kitchen setups to opt for a compost bin with a place to dispose of the waste they collect.” With the continued help of Housekeeping, Grounds, and the Eco Reps, it is conceivable that Bowdoin will have more composting options in the years (or even months) to come.

If anyone has composting thoughts, we would love to hear them. Send suggestions to Bailey Moritz at bmoritz or Andrew Cushing at acushing.