The Compost Chronicles: Colgate University

Tucked away in a rural village in upstate New York is a private liberal arts college with a storied past, mysterious lore about the number 13, and loyal alumni that include famous names like journalist Chris Hedges, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s, and political journalist Gloria Borger.

All Or Nothing. A mental booby-trap that is like quicksand for the mind and is easy to fall into in our increasingly bifurcated world. I played into this false dichotomy during a recent visit to Colgate University. I had the opportunity to speak with their students in the Environmental Studies program, and find out firsthand: does Colgate University compost? Yes? Or no?

Julia Sparks is the Coordinator for the Environmental Studies Program and doubles as the University’s Assistant Director of Sustainability. Julia works alongside Director John Pumilio, the man that’s been tasked since 2009 with implementing more sustainable systems at Colgate. John has been steadfast in bringing composting to the University, along with a litany of other measures to cut their carbon footprint. In just 10 years, Colgate has reduced its carbon by 46%, in large part thanks to John and his team’s efforts.

A sign in the Colgate University dining hall celebrating Colgate’s commitment to composting and reducing food waste.
A sign in the Colgate University dining hall celebrating Colgate’s commitment to composting and reducing food waste.

Julia asked me to come and present at the school for the Environmental Studies Program’s “Brown Bag Seminar Series” and share information about CET’s Rethink Food Waste New York program. This is a partnership with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and core to the program is providing technical assistance to businesses and institutions to reduce food waste. This partnership was formed on the heels of New York State Legislators passing the Food Donation and Food Scrap Recycling Law in 2022. This law requires businesses and institutions that generate an average of 2 tons of wasted food per week or more to:

1. donate excess edible food; and
2. recycle all remaining food scraps if they are within 25 miles of an organics recycler (composting facility, anaerobic digester, etc).

Digging In

I uncovered many gems while researching Colgate’s long, labyrinthine history of implementing compost on campus. One of my favorite discoveries from the internet’s treasure trove of Colgate compost tales is this remnant of an event that was held in November of 2020, called “Hot Compost.” Colgate Professor and Librarian, Joshua Finnell, quotes Thea Quiray Tagle:

HOT COMPOST is an all-day durational broadcast event led by amazing Margaretha Haughwout and team in Hamilton, NY. It’s art, it’s gardening/permaculture/compost, it’s about changing systems and transforming sh*t into something that can grow and nourish.”

Colgate’s prior efforts to compost on campus were led by students on a mission to keep food scraps out of the trash, understanding their inherent value and the missed opportunity for better use than emitting greenhouse gases in a landfill.

It was around 2012 that on-site composting at Colgate was launched and communication efforts followed. There was even a short 2-minute video that was produced, simply and eloquently explaining the process for composting on Colgate’s campus:

Set up a small bucket near your food preparation area
Empty it into a larger one outside
Make sure to follow a guide or signs so you know what can or cannot go into composting
Once your composting bin is halfway full, contact Building & Grounds so they can bring your compost to Colgate’s main composting site
A honey bee lands on a yellow flower.
A honey bee lands on a yellow flower.

Food scraps were collected from Frank Dining Hall and the Coop, but at some point, the amount of food scraps produced on campus became more than the compost site and its operators could process. The pile wasn’t getting turned enough and began producing odor and attracting animals. Unpleasant experiences with composting can make it extremely difficult for any campus or community to be open to trying it again. This was also largely a student-led effort, so once student compost leaders graduated, the compost program faded with their departure from campus. The good news is that the students had a lot of the mechanics right.

Technically speaking

To handle large volumes of compost, the piles (or “windrows,” as large, long compost piles are often called) require a certain level of recipe development and pile management to reduce odors and to ensure we’re not setting up unintentional buffet feasts for the woodland creatures nearby. This means dialing in things like the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (often abbreviated as C:N) and the percentage of moisture content, percentage solids, and bulk density (pounds/yd). If there are specific agricultural applications, it’s also important to look at the pH and soluble salts (mmhos/cm). All great learning opportunities for biology and chemistry students!

Aside from the obvious microbes performing valuable ecosystem services, perhaps the most critical piece of any functioning community-scale composting system is the people making the compost magic/science happen.

Sowing the seeds…

Beth Roy started as the Community Garden Manager for Colgate in 2013. She studied psychology and biology and is a certified horticultural therapist with a background serving adults with developmental disabilities, connecting them with the healing properties of plants and gardening. In a little under a decade, Beth has weathered many snowstorms and has had to move the garden twice. All that while growing on average 4000 lbs. of produce per year that supplies a weekly farm stand on campus, Dining Services, Colgate’s interfaith center, “Chapel House,” and the Hamilton Food Cupboard with ecologically-grown, local, fresh produce.

Beth was not deterred by how the larger community composting efforts failed to stick. In fact, this fueled Beth’s determination to launch her own compost pilot program, shifting focus to the vibrant Greek life on campus.

A fenced-in garden with pink and yellow flowers and a sign that reads Colgate Community Garden.
A fenced-in garden with pink and yellow flowers and a sign that reads Colgate Community Garden.

In the spring of 2022, Beth launched a pilot collecting food scraps around campus from most student houses along Broad Street, using her own vehicle. She then asked the Facilities Department if she could use one of their golf carts to pick up the scrap buckets from the seven fraternities and sororities participating in the pilot. When that proved not to be an option, Beth had an idea one day while walking by the Athletics Department, when she saw an empty golf cart that wasn’t in use. She asked if she could use it to collect food scraps around campus, and they agreed.

One year later and this collaboration for the greater good between Beth Roy and Colgate University’s Sustainability Office has blossomed and is going strong. Five-gallon buckets of food scraps are now collected weekly and taken to the Community Garden, where they’re then used to fertilize the garden beds. “Campus houses and apartments with fewer residents can also be provided with a compost tumbler on site that is emptied as needed,” according to Colgate’s Waste Minimization and Recycling webpage. Colgate was also just awarded a grant to help purchase their own electric golf cart for the compost program. The funding is through the NYSAR3 and NYSP2I College Council grant program, and the University is excited about how this will help strengthen its composting efforts. To date, they’ve collected and composted over 4,000 lbs of food scraps since starting the program last spring.

Moving away from all-or-nothing thinking

Learning and writing about Colgate’s composting journey has served as a great reminder of the importance of not falling into the “all-or-nothing” trap. It’s easy to think in binary terms; this is either happening, or it’s not. As changes are implemented at businesses and institutions throughout New York State and we close the loop on wasted food, it’s important to remember that implementation sometimes needs to be incremental.

Colgate University might just be writing a blueprint for other institutions on how to implement change when roadblocks keep popping up. Whether it’s through cross-departmental collaboration or the prominent involvement of the campus’s Greek Life, Colgate is mixing up more than just compost—it’s mixing up the sustainability playbook.

Earth knows no desolation.

She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay.

– George Meredith

Lisa Pellegrino is a Waste Reduction Consultant with the Center for EcoTechnology and has 20+ years of experience working at nonprofits. Lisa is an alum of the University of Rhode Island, AmeriCorps, and the Southface Energy Institute, and got her MBA in Sustainable Systems specializing in sustainable food & agriculture. She’s been a guest lecturer at the Harvard Extension School, Suffolk University, Colgate University, and the University at Buffalo.

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