Members of the Columbia Composting Coalition, a subgroup of the student environmental organization EcoReps, met Thursday afternoon to fill the machine with its first batch of food scraps and carbon-rich woodchips. Housed in the basement of the upperclassman dormitory Ruggles Hall, the composter is the first in in an urban college campus in the United States.
Leftover food from John Jay Dining Hall will be used during the pilot program, which will last through the end of the academic year. In September, the composter will rely exclusively on student-donated food scraps.
It should produce about 160 gallons of compost in each two-week cycle, but more importantly, EcoReps member Adam Formica, CC '13, said, it will provide a valuable educational opportunity.0 Students will be able to “start thinking about living in an urban environment and still being sustainable, and not have to sacrifice sustainability by choosing to come to school in a place like New York City,” he said.
Despite receiving the lowest grade on the Green Report Card in the Ivy League, Columbia has the chance to make a powerful environmental statement with the composter, Formica said.
It will be vegan, according to EcoReps member Marissa Savoie, CC '15, accepting vegetable scraps, but no meat or dairy waste. The machine will also divert food waste from landfills, where it would produce the greenhouse gas methane, Formica said.
It will also make the University money by helping the Office of Environmental Stewardship receive grants and attracting environmentally conscious students to Columbia.
Gerardo Soto of NATH Sustainable Solutions, the consulting company that helped EcoReps purchase the composter, said that the Rocket is used by roughly 20 percent of universities in the United Kingdom but is still relatively rare in the United States.
“That's why the Ruggles composter is unique. It is the first of its kind to be installed on a college campus in a dense urban environment like Manhattan,” Soto said.
The project has been nine years in the making. According to Formica, the biggest challenge was aligning three factors: transporting the food scraps to the compost, acquiring woodchips to use as a bulking agent, and assembling and training a staff of committed volunteers.
The project was in the works last semester, but the owner of the landscaping company, who had informally agreed to drop off woodchips in exchange for compost, ultimately backed out.
For now, the team is relying on one-time drop-offs of woodchips, with the first shipment coming from a Brooklyn landscaping company. Formica said that one most sustainable option on the table is getting researchers at Columbia's Nevis Laboratories to offer their excess woodchips from the Irvington, N.Y., campus to Morningside Heights.
The project has been a collaboration between Ecoreps, Columbia Housing, and Columbia Dining. Housing is paying for the cost of the composter.
John Jay Dining Hall's staff, under executive chef Angelo Mylonas, will place food scraps suitable for compost into bins as they prepare food. The bins will then be wheeled off to the Rocket by student volunteers.
After receiving training from Soto, Ecoreps members will train other student volunteers who want to participate in the project after the pilot phase. Soto's services and the cost of the composter will be paid for by the portion of Housing's budget that is set aside for sustainability projects.
Formica said he was most excited that the composter could bring about a real, tangible change to the University. “Really, we're teaching Columbia how to do something it hasn't done before,” Formica said. “And you're talking about an institution that's 250 years old.”