Break It Down, Now

Turning composting dreams into realities

by Zoë Isabella, guest writer; illustrations by Becca Levi, staff artist

There are two man-made structures that can be seen from space: one is the Great Wall of China, and the other is the Fresh Kills Landfill of New York, USA. Americans generate 251 million tons of trash annually. 32.5 percent of that is recycled or composted and therefore diverted from the landfill. That leaves 196.2 million tons of trash added to our landfills every year—much of which could be diverted. But how? Recycling and composting—the act of intercepting waste materials destined for a landfill, changing their course, and adding to their lifespan by turning them into useful resources for our society—are our most important methods of waste diversion.

In 2008, during my freshman year, I began an internship for Colorado College’s Office of Sustainability. The other interns and I were responsible for turning CC’s Earth Tub once a day, and we found ourselves directly confronted with the everyday realities of composting (including my physical weakness —thankfully my friends helped me!). The Earth Tub is a high-capacity, cleverly designed container that mixes and aerates decomposing matter to speed up the process of decomposition. The compost is used to fertilize some of the flowerbeds on campus. The Earth Tub turns diverted waste into something beautiful for our campus.

You may be surprised to know that you and the Earth Tub have likely already met. It is the large bowl-looking thing outside the Arts & Crafts Center across from Honnen Hockey Rink. And despite its massive size, the tub is at its capacity.  It processes forty tons of food waste every year—food that would otherwise be headed straight to a landfill.

The CC community has recently made it clear that it wants a larger-scale composting program. For instance, shouldn’t students in residential halls be able to compost? What about classrooms, office buildings, and other dining facilities? We should attempt to keep as much food matter away from the landfill as we can, but how exactly can we make composting a campus-wide practice? This is no easy question to answer. If only composting were as simple as adding another receptacle next to the trash and recycling bins.

Compost is a value-added product; decomposing matter is usually wasted, but composting adds value to the material by developing waste into a substance that can be used to enrich future plant production. Similar to the concept of recycling, the concept of composting is based on the idea that there should be a circular rather than linear approach to how we deal with material. When thinking of how to implement a large scale composting system on the CC campus, one must consider where our outlet would be. Would we compost exclusively on our campus and use the compost for our own landscaping, or would we send our compost to a local farm? Could we contract a composting service, equivalent to our Bestway recycling service, to pick up our food waste? The latter would certainly require less effort from the CC community, but it is simply impossible at this time, as there are no companies in the area capable of such a service. That leaves us with the first two options, both of which require CC’s direct involvement in the composting process. Students would have to get down and dirty, a fact that might seem discouraging on some campuses, but actually makes me hopeful for the future of sustainability at CC.

Allow me to explain my sudden optimism. It wasn’t too long ago that CC did not have a recycling program. Institutionalized recycling for academic buildings started in 2003 and expanded to the residence halls two years later. Single stream recycling arrived in 2008. These college-funded changes came about because of students who took the initiative to collect and hand-sort the campus’s trash for years! Even in the three years that I have been at CC, I have witnessed an impressive display of enthusiasm towards waste minimization. Students get excited about sorting through the garbage on Trash Peak during the annual Recyclemania competition in the spring, and many upperclassmen that live off campus or in apartments have found ways to compost in the face of considerable inconvenience, bringing their own compost to the CC Farm or to Synergy House. Junior Alan Voeller is optimistic about his apartment’s endeavor to compost: “even if you don’t take out your compost as much as you should, it still takes a couple of days for a rotting, soggy, and leaking bag of food to start smelling.” It’s inspiring to see a group of students get things done, with or without institutional support.

Composting is by no means pretty: the practice requires us to let go of our comfort in throwing things away and never having to see or smell them again. But despite the odor, the rewards are innumerable. We can work together with friends to make composting a part of our daily lives. By sharing efforts and ideas for efficient composting, we can move the CC community forward so that institutional change can follow.

Refer to the instructions of Rebecca Levi, a CC Farm intern, to learn how to play a part in campus sustainability through composting in your house, apartment, or dorm room.

Break It Down Now (PDF)


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