Nearly 70,000 pounds of food waste diverted from landfills by GC composting project

Nearly 70,000 pounds of food waste diverted from landfills by GC composting project

F ood. It’s a necessity of life, yet it also takes up the most space in landfills. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30-40% of the food supply is wasted. That’s 80 billion pounds each year.

Georgia College’s Office of Sustainability works to curb that number, at least as it relates to food waste on campus with a composting operation.

Molly Robbins puts food waste into the compost machine.
Molly Robbins puts food waste into the compost machine.
“We've been operating since 2017, and we have processed nearly 70,000 pounds total. That’s almost 10,000 pounds just this semester,” said Lori Hamilton, chief sustainability officer. “I love this program, the way it was written and the way it operates. It’s something we can build off of in the future.”

The project started small with a few faculty members in environmental sciences—Drs. Sam and Christine Mutiti and Dr. Allison VandeVoort. The Mutiti’s initially allowed students to compost at their own home. Then they worked with the Office of Sustainability to formally establish the program on campus and get it funded through the Sustainability Fee Program. From that funding, the facility was built, the machines purchased and student interns were hired to run the daily operations of the program

This semester, Molly Robbins and Jackson Masters serve as student interns for the composting initiative. Their job is to collect the food waste from the MAX and take it to be processed at the facility on West Campus.

“We have two bins in the MAX. One to collect our pre-consumer food, so that's anything that doesn't make it to plates. Then we have another one which collects anything that gets scraped off plates,” said Robbins, a junior environmental science major. 

Jackson Masters works to turn the piles.
Jackson Masters works to turn the piles.
Each morning on Monday through Friday, the team drops off the containers. Then each afternoon, they collect them for processing.

“First, we weigh what we’ve collected to keep a record of how much compost we're doing,” said Masters, senior history major. “Before we put the food in the mixer, we have to add a carbon source, which for us is sawdust.”

From there, the mixer combines food waste with the sawdust, which is the beginning of the composting process.  

“After about 15-20 minutes, we send it up the auger, which is like a screw that brings it up from the mixer into our machine,” said Robbins. “Our machine is a giant drum, and typically the compost turns slowly in the vessel for approximately two to three weeks.”

Robbins remove compost from the machine.
Robbins remove compost from the machine.
Once it’s removed from the machine, the final step is to give compost time to mature in the open air. It allows bad bacteria to continue to die off and good nutrients to increase.

Masters and Robbins work to turn more than 20 piles at the compost site weekly. 

“The bacteria that are breaking down all the material is aerobic. It breathes the same air that we breathe, and it needs oxygen. That is why we have to turn the piles,” Robbins said. “  

“We also take the temperature to gauge the maturity of the pile,” she added. “When it’s young it’s really hot 140 150 degrees Fahrenheit, but it cools as it matures.”  

The process takes weeks from start to finish. Once the compost has fully matured it’s used at the Campus Garden.

The project has come a long way since its humble beginnings, but those involved still see potential for growth.

Masters takes the temperature of the pile.
Masters takes the temperature of the pile.
“Our long-term goal is to make our product available for purchase externally. The whole idea is to hopefully make a little bit of money that we can put back into the program,” Hamilton said. “I see us possibly expanding to work with local restaurants, especially downtown. If they collect it, we could come pick it and process it.”

Students also see the value of the learning opportunities provided by the project, both through course research and working as an intern. 

“It has great student research opportunities,” Robbins said. “We've actually had two environmental science students present on two separate research projects on the composting process, and we have another one approved that they're going to get started on as well.”

“I've just learned so much on this job that's applicable,” said Masters. “I’ve learned the value of teamwork, especially working with other people in the office.” 

The project provides not only the opportunity for personal growth and development but also helps protect our most valuable resource—the earth.

One huge benefit for the project is we're not sending waste to the landfill. We're reducing the costs that we pay out to have waste hauled from campus, and we're also doing it to benefit the environment.
– Lori Hamilton