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In Action: The Compost Crew

A small but dedicated group of Washington and Lee students makes a habit of “getting messy” for the good of the University and the environment.

Known as the Compost Crew, the students haul cans of food scraps to an on-campus Earth Tub, where they periodically turn it, add in leaves and wood chips and check the temperature. When the scraps have turned into compost, the crew unloads the material and stores it for use in the campus garden. At least one crew member works each evening during the academic year, six days a week, to keep the process going.

“The Compost Crew is a perfect example of the intersection of three components of sustainability — economic, environmental and social,” said Kim Cowgill, director of sustainability initiatives and education.

“We’re saving money by making our own compost and reducing what we are taking to the landfill, and we’re helping the environment by converting food waste into a rich source of energy for the garden.” As importantly, she said, students are engaged in their community and learning about composting, project administration and coordination, teamwork and leadership. “The student engagement is what is most impressive — they care enough about our community to put their ethic into action.”

Cort Hammond ’15 led the Compost Crew this past year. A Johnson Scholar and member of the Student Environmental Action League, he describes his crew as “an outgoing group of students who enjoy some messy labor that certainly adds some flavor to the week.”

They take pride in what they do, even “hauling scraps to the composter on chilly nights or removing compost from the bins on sweltering days.” Through it all, they try to have fun. When dealing with the equipment proves frustrating, “it’s best to laugh things off and keep trying to get it running.”

He got involved during his first year at W&L because of the enthusiasm of the leader at that time, and he realized the opportunity “to make a positive impact on our waste management system” and learn something new. “I have noticed that students in compost crew have a much clearer picture of how things run at our university, and the reality of food waste is something that we are still dealing with.”

The crew got started about a decade ago when the University received a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South to conduct environmental research. Bill Hamilton, professor of biology and a plant biologist, was able to use that grant to test three composting methods.

Starting out with a donated tank, the project grew, and additional money from the University allowed them to purchase the current Earth Tub system. He hired students through the work-study program, and the Compost Crew took off. “Composting saves money and helps the university with its carbon footprint,” he said. W&L has pledged to attain carbon neutrality by 2050.

Although Hamilton stays interested and involved in the project, day-to-day oversight is now facilitated by Chris Wise, W&L’s environmental management coordinator.

The University’s long-term goal is “to recycle all pre- and post-consumer foods through the composting process and then use the compost in the garden and possibly in turf situations around campus,” Wise said. He said student involvement is critical and provides a valuable learning experience.

With the current system, only waste from prepping foods can be composted. The staff and crew members, along with Hamilton, are evaluating newer and larger systems that will process more compost more quickly and allow them to use table scraps and other post-consumer waste.

“Currently we are struggling to process the food scraps and waste at a fast enough rate, and some materials, such as paper towels and greenware, are not captured,” said Hammond. “I cannot wait for the day when our composting system is expanded and a more integrated approach to dealing with food waste is adopted.”

Hamilton said that in a university environment, 40-60 percent of waste is compostable. With a system upgrade, “We could easily triple our capacity in the next few years.”

Everyone involved with the Compost Crew emphasizes the value of a long-term approach to the project — from system upgrades to recruiting new crew members to educating students about the effects of waste on the environment.

Although Hammond graduates this year with a major in chemistry-engineering, he says the knowledge he has learned through the Compost Crew will remain valuable. “It has taught me a great deal, and I will certainly be applying some of the knowledge I gained in my career as an engineer.”

He also credits Wise with being a “fantastic mentor, boss and friend. I will carry his lessons with me for the rest of my life.”

– by Linda Evans