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GCI Upgrades ESF’s Capacity for Composting

Members of Green Campus Initiative (GCI), a student-led sustainability group at SUNY-ESF, recently spent some chilly weekend mornings just outside their heated greenhouse. They've been busy putting cinderblock walls in place, digging holes, and sawing plywood to finish creating a new facility for a campus-wide compost system.

The new facility will roughly double the campus' capacity for composting, said Ross Mazur, a junior environmental resource engineering major and GCI's treasurer.

"The new system must be able to handle the current rate that food waste is generated, with some capacity to spare," Mazur said.

GCI hopes to have the new construction completed so the facility is ready for use by the time classes resume for the spring 2014 semester. The main frame of cinderblocks has already been built, as well as the walls that create four compost bins. Soon it will have a roof of insulated metal and UV-resistant corrugated plastic.

Mazur and GCI Compost Chair Jin Kim chose the new compost system because it relies on passive aeration, or exposure to air that aids with the decomposition process without the use of machines. When finished, the passive aeration system will have PVC pipes that feed fresh air internally to the compost bins.

The new design should help more waste decompose during the winter, Mazur said, because it will have internal walls insulated by wire mesh and wooden frames that will prevent cold air from slowing the breakdown process.

The costs of the new compost system are being covered by money the ESF Undergraduate Student Association allocates to GCI, Mazur said. This funding includes buying recycled concrete cinderblocks from Habitat for Humanity.

"It is different from what most schools use to compost," said Kim, a junior environment policy, planning and law major. She added most schools use less efficient, pre-made composters that rely on electric aeration systems, like the one being replaced at ESF.

GCI takes care of about 80 percent of ESF's food waste, most of which comes from the Trailhead Cafe and the rest from six compost bins strategically placed around the campus, Kim said.

ESF's current compost system relies on electric blowers that operate for roughly six hours, seven days a week.

The opening of the Trailhead Cafe made creating the new compost system a high priority for the group, Kim said. GCI members knew that the size of the then-existing compost system would be unable to handle the extra waste efficiently.

"I think it was very pressing," Kim said," The old bin was not very efficient."

GCI received official permission to begin work on the compost system Oct. 10 from the ESF administration and Physical Plant and Facilities, the department that provides building and grounds maintenance.

Kim said that the Physical Plant staff has been supportive of the new project.

"Physical Plant has been very accommodating and helpful in getting the system ready to be built," she said.

Kim and Mazur spent two months over the summer researching new compost systems before they found the passive aeration system.

Michael Kelleher, executive director of Energy and Sustainability at ESF, helped Ross and Kim, as well as other GCI members, plan the logistics of the new compost system.

Kelleher said he thinks the new passively aerated system will have many long-term benefits, beyond increasing the college's composting efficiency. It's superior productivity will likely save the college money in paying for trash removal, he said.

He also believes that the new compost system can be used as a way for GCI members to educate other students about different forms of composting.

"I think it's great," Kelleher said, "It takes waste and converts it into something that can be used as an educational tool."

Kim said she hopes the new compost system will make other students realize they have the ability to make a difference in supporting ESF's overarching sustainability mission, even as undergraduates.

"We want to show students we are fellow students building this new system," Kim said. "I think it's a great way to get involved with what the school is doing."