Exeter Composting Initiative

Location:

Exeter, NH

Date:

04 November, 2019

Services:

Sustainability, Composting

All-School Dorm Composting Initiative

Initial Goals

This initiative sought to address the lack of awareness among students about composting, as well as decrease the percentage of Exeter’s food waste that goes to the landfill. We, as in Bea, Molly, Harrison, and I, initially planned to develop a system of maintaining compost bins in every dorm and emptying them reliably every week to prevent any messes that could create extra work for the custodial staff. We wanted this system to operate with the approval of facilities, dining hall staff, and dorm faculty but envisioned it as a student-run initiative. We planed to obtain one hundred 1.3 gallon compost bins, allowing us to allocate one bin to roughly every dormitory floor. We know that, for this initiative to be successful, we must also educate all students in each dorm on what items can be composted and why it is important.

Current Progress

This initiative, born in Exeter’s Green Umbrella Learning Lab, has now been implemented in the majority of dorms on campus, numbering over 18 dorms and 70 compost bins. It is completely student-run as we have successfully integrated the program with an environmental club on campus called E-Proctors. The implementation was overseen by Bea and me and is still supervised by the two of us as well as the E-Proctor advisors and co-heads.

It took several months of research, organization, logistics, and funding petitions to turn the initiative into a reality. We ran pilot programs, negotiated with administration and companies, educated dorms, collaborated with the heads of sustainability, facilities, and dining services, and oversaw everything. Below is my team’s Demonstration of Learning which documents all our planning, work, and efforts.

Demonstration of Learning

Project Abstract/Description 

The goal of our project is to implement composting in every dorm on campus. Our project seeks to address the lack of awareness among students about composting, as well as decrease the percentage of Exeter’s food waste that goes to the landfill. We hope to develop a system of maintaining compost bins in every dorm, and emptying them reliably every week to prevent any messes that could create extra work for the custodial staff. We want this system to operate with the approval of facilities, dining hall staff, and dorm faculty, but envision it as a student-run initiative. We plan to obtain one hundred 1.3 gallon compost bins, allowing us to allocate one bin to roughly every dormitory floor. We know that, for this program to be successful, we must also educate all students in each dorm on what items can be composted and why it is important.

Genesis 

Initially, our plan was to talk to local businesses and encourage them to implement more sustainable practices. But we ran into two major problems. First of all, this same project has been tried by numerous Exeter students throughout the years, with little or no results. Second, we realized that even if more local businesses started using compostable packaging, one of our potential asks, Exeter students would still end up sending that packaging to the landfill if they ate in their dorms. And most takeout containers are disposed of in students’ dorms. Thus, the idea of dorm composting was born. 

We believe that by placing compost bins in each dorm on campus we will increase the percentage of Exeter’s waste that is diverted from landfills. As we learned during our research, food waste makes up 22 percent of discarded municipal solid waste in America. Exeter currently has compost bins in the dining halls and grill, in which any food or organic waste can be placed. But there are not any composting bins in dorms, so food waste generated in the dorm goes in the trash. During the pilot program, we found that, every week, the average amount of compost produced was about 0.864 gallons per bin. If we multiply that by approximately 80 bins and 30 weeks in the school year, we could potentially divert over 2,000 gallons of food waste from the landfill in the span of only one year! 

In landfills, waste is deprived of oxygen and generates greenhouse gases that pollute the atmosphere. But when sent to a composting facility, the release of greenhouse gases is greatly reduced. Compost also gives food a second life as nutrient-rich fertilizer instead of simply taking up space in one of America’s many landfills. With compost bins in every dorm, students will see them every day and become more familiar with the concept of composting. We think that this exposure will encourage them to compost not only while at Exeter but in future stages of their lives as well. 

Core Questions 

Exeter has a composting system at the dining halls and at Grill, but not all of the food waste at the school comes from those locations. Plenty of Exeter students also order or make food in their own dorms. We ran into a couple of questions while trying to address this problem; here are the questions, in the order in which they can be dealt with.

  • How do we keep students from contaminating the compost bins?
  • What is the most reliable way for the composting bins to be emptied?
  • What is the most economical way to obtain compost bins and compostable bags for every dorm on campus while giving them an efficient way to empty the bins?
  • How much food waste will be diverted from the landfill as a result of our composting efforts, and will this reduction justify the costs of our dorm composting initiative?
  • How do we increase student interest in composting and maintain student involvement over the years?
  • How do we educate students on what can and cannot be composted?
Our Progress and Action

Research – After deciding to tackle this project, we started to do preliminary research on composting, and specifically on the dorm composting systems on different college campuses. This research was helpful in developing our own models, as we could take ideas from other schools and learn from the flaws in their initial programs. We emailed numerous schools and heard back from a few. Harvard, for example, implemented their dorm composting system a few years ago and they provided us with some insightful reports and articles. The University of Iowa had an interesting take on dorm composting. They gave out compost kits to individuals who were interested in composting in their rooms, thereby handing individual students all the responsibility for preventing contamination, taking out the compost, and cleaning the bins. 

Next, we wanted answers to our more specific questions about composting at Exeter.  We wanted to know the details of how composting works at Exeter currently, where our compost goes, who is in charge of the system, what our composting facility can process, and whose support we would need to get our project off the ground. We emailed many individuals on campus (including the Manager of Sustainability and Nature Resources, Facilities Manager, Senior Services and Events Manager, Director of Dining Services, and more) to learn more about the composting process at Exeter, and learn their opinions and concerns. We also did research on the most effective and economic compost bins, and the other costs that would be associated with the program. Through our research, we were able to gain a fuller understanding of composting at Exeter, as well as a general idea of the costs and supplies necessary for various models of our dorm composting program.

Current Composting System – The current composting system at Exeter involves composting in three locations: Elm Street Dining Hall, Wetherell Dining Hall, and Grill. 

At Elm Street, students place their plates, containing any remaining food waste, on a conveyor belt when they are done eating. The dining hall staff removes the food waste from these plates and places it in compost bins. These bins are in the parking lot behind the dining hall. A truck from Casella, our waste management contractors, comes to take the compost away each week. At Wetherell, diners scrape their plates of remaining food when they finish their meals before placing them on racks to be washed. The bins of food waste are kept in a freezer in Wetherell before they are taken away by Casella. At Grill, there are two compost bins in the main eating area, next to the trash and recycling bins. Waste from these bins is placed behind the Academy Center Building, where it is picked up weekly. 

The waste from each of these locations goes to a company called Agri-Cycle Energy, whose composting facility is located in Exeter, Maine. At Agri-Cycle, food waste is used to create enough clean, renewable energy to power about 1,000 homes in the area. 

Model Development – We started out by brainstorming several possible models for what our dorm composting program could look like. 

E-Proctors Model: In this model, solely the E-Proctors would be responsible for educating their dorms, preventing contamination, and emptying the bins once a week. However, we decided this put a little too much of the responsibility on a single person in the dorm, and might not get many students involved.

Composting Club Model: We considered creating an entirely new composting club for students dedicated to the program, and the members who would be responsible for education, preventing contamination, and emptying the bins. However, we were unsure whether, if we were to go with this model, there would actually be enough interested people to sign up. 

Individual Interest Model: We also thought about following in the footsteps of the University of Iowa, using an individual interest model that would allow individual students to opt into the program. They would be given a contract to sign and a bin to put in their own room, which they personally would be responsible for maintaining and emptying on schedule. However, facilities had some concerns with this model because of the lack of oversight in students’ rooms. A compost bin could be full of maggots in someone’s closet and the custodial staff would never know. It is also not particularly efficient or cost-effective to have a bin for every person when they could be shared instead. 

Dorm Model: Finally, the model which we eventually ended up pursuing, is a model in which dorm faculty, students in the dorm, and E-Proctors have shared responsibility for the bins in their own dorms. We realized that this model would cost less and be more efficient than the individual interest model, would maximize student investment in the composting system, and would allow for multiple people to feel a sense of responsibility for the program, thereby helping to ensure that the bins are maintained and emptied regularly.

Pilot – Before midterms, we implemented a pilot program in three dorms: Knight House, Williams House, and McConnell Hall. Later, we expanded the pilot to include Main Street Dorm as well. These are the dorms in which our group members live, and we wanted to run our pilot program in places where we could be personally responsible for the bins. We talked to the Senior Services Manager to get access to a sink in McConnell where we could wash our bins once a week. We talked to the Director of Dining Services to get permission to empty our bins behind Elm and inside Weth during mealtimes. Finally, we talked to our dorm heads to get permission to keep the bins in the dorm, and to organize dorm meetings in which we talked to dorm residents about preventing contamination and encouraged them to participate in the program. We also placed flyers by the bins in order to remind people what can be composted and to provide easily accessible educational information. 

We later began piloting compostable bags as well, which made taking out the composting each week much easier and faster. It also eliminated the need to find a place to wash the bins that was convenient for each participating dorm. We’ve found that the bags are capable of handling a week’s worth of compost without decomposing or breaking apart. We tried out two different brands, UNNI and Second Nature, and they both worked well, except for the fact that they were slightly too small and dropped into the bins at times. As a result, we found a larger size of compostable bag which we can order from UNNI. 

Ultimately, during the pilot program, we found that, every week, the average amount of compost produced was about 0.864 gallons per bin, or 36% of the bin’s maximum capacity. We also received very few complaints about the bins, and found that dorm residents were generally happy to participate in the program and did not have any problems with the bins in their dorm. There were no problems with odor or bugs. 

Data Gathering – Throughout the pilot, we gathered data on the amount of compost each dorm generated, and used that to extrapolate how many bins we would need per dorm when we expanded. We began to gather data on how many students would be interested in our Individual Interest Model as well, but we soon realized that staff (specifically the Facilities Manager) and faculty were not on board due to lack of supervision inherent in this model and the inefficiency of giving each student their own bin. We also gathered more information about the development of E-Proctors this year, trying to assess whether they would have the manpower and organization to carry out out E-Proctor model. 

Program Realization – After piloting for a few weeks, we talked at a dorm head meeting to discuss an all-campus dorm composting system. Although there were a few concerns and questions (which we addressed during the meeting), the dorm head meeting went well and it seemed as if most dorm-heads would support this program. We then emailed Dean Cahalane to ask if she could send out an email to all dorm-heads asking them to let us know whether or not they would support their dorm participating. We are currently hearing back from dorm-heads, and are planning to enlist E-Proctors to talk to their dorm heads if they have not given us an answer. Once we have responses from all dorm heads, we will be able to calculate how many bins we need and finalize our funding proposal.

“Bumps in the Road”

Going into the project, we didn’t anticipate the amount of resistance we would encounter to putting compost bins in dorms. For one, we had to get the support of facilities. They had reservations because, if the bins were not emptied regularly, the waste could begin to rot and maggots could soon move in, and then it would be facilities’ job to clean up the mess. In order to reassure Ms. Simmons, the Facilities Manager, we realized we would need to have a very comprehensive plan for emptying the bins, with safeguards in place to make sure none were left full. We exchanged emails with her to make sure all of her concerns were addressed in our plan. 

Because our plan involved dropping off each dorm’s compost in the dining halls, we also had to get the approval of dining services. We exchanged emails and met in person with Ms. Leonard, whose main worry was contaminating the large amounts of compost already being produced by the dining halls. We assured her that we would go around to every dorm receiving a compost bin to educate students on what exactly they could put in the compost bins, and to tell them that, if they’re not sure, don’t throw it in the compost. It’s better to miss one piece of compost than to contaminate an entire week’s worth from the dining hall. 

Finally, we had to get dorm faculty on board. At the dorm heads’ meeting we attended, our project was met with enthusiasm and encouragement. However, possible concerns about fruit flies, creating a mess in dorms if the bins are not properly emptied and cleaned, and creating more work for proctors or other dorm members, were brought up by members of the faculty. We reassured them that we would have a system of emptying the bins that would ensure none of these happened, and did our best to assure them that it would not be too much work dorm people in their dorm. Finally, we gave them the option to opt in or out on behalf of their dorm so that we could be sure that, whichever dorms are participating have dorm head who was in support of the program, making it more likely that the program will go smoothly. 

Besides getting groups on board, we had more logistical problems that arose during our project. Our biggest hurdle was figuring out a way to reliably empty the bins at least once a week. We considered multiple different models, from a student work program, to e-proctors running the program, to an individual interest model where each student opts in to having their own compost bin. We explored each option before choosing the model in which dorm faculty, proctors, and e-proctors have shared responsibility for emptying the bins in their dorms. We chose this because it would be less expensive than the student work program, more efficient than the individual interest model because students can share bins, and gives each student a personal stake in the project. Along with this, we had the problem of cleaning the bins. We were told by facilities not to wash compost bins in the dorm sinks, so this left us with the problem of choosing a place to wash the emptied bins. Thankfully, Mr. Biggins and Ms. Simmons informed us of a utility sink in McConnell that we could wash the bins in. We washed our bins there for the first two weeks of our program. However, doing so was time-consuming and often unpleasant. We did not think that students would be motivated to wash their bins in our future program. To solve this problem, we have been piloting compostable bags to line the bins so that they do not need to be washed every time they are emptied.

What would you do differently?

It took us a long time to decide on which of our models we wanted to use to empty the bins. If we made that decision more quickly, we could have spent more time fleshing out our current preferred model: dorm heads, dorm residents, and e-proctors working together to empty the bins. We could also have started talking to dorm-heads and gotten their responses more quickly. It has been taking dorm heads a long time to respond to our emails, so if we had sent them out sooner we would not be in such a time crunch. Getting them involved sooner may also have given dorm heads more time to voice questions and concerns about the project earlier on in our planning process. 

Project Summary
  • Brainstormed possible sustainability problems to solve
  • Chose to focus on implementing dorm composting
  • Researched and developed possible models, or methods for emptying our bins
  • Communicated with Mr. Bre Miller, Mr. Biggins, facilities and dining hall staff, and dorm heads to get input on these models
  • Began pilot programs in three dorms
  • Decided on our dorm responsibility model
  • Researched and finalized selection of compost bins, filters, and bags through pilot testing, deal-making with companies, and recommendations from Mr. Bre 
  • Collaborated with the Sustainability Heads and numerous other staff-members to develop and optimize our model 
  • Conducted several educational outreach, such as dorm meetings and final presentation, to further environmental education (specifically on composting) on campus
  • Worked with E-Proctors to discuss the continued ownership of our project 
Next Steps 
  • We would like to speak about dorm composting at climate action day in order to educate students about the importance of composting, the inner-workings of our system, and the things that can be put in the bins.
  • We would like to expand the program to all-dorms
What we’ve learned

This project taught all of us to be more effective communicators. There were many occasions where we had to take initiative and make things happen when communication between our group and faculty members was stagnating. We also had to find the right people to contact at all stages of our project, such as Mr. Biggins, Ms. Leonard, and Ms. Henry. A major takeaway, and something that Mr. Bre Miller emphasized a lot, was that face-to-face communication is key when it comes to getting things done. When we did not receive a response from someone over email, we took the initiative to walk to wherever they were on campus and speak to them in person. This resulted in not only quicker responses but more meaningful communication as well. 

We also learned more about Exeter’s composting system. We figured out where our compost goes and learned more about what it is used for once it gets to Agri-Cycle. More importantly, we discovered the gaps in our current composting system, such as all of the compost that is lost in dorms. We hope to close some of those gaps through our composting initiative.

We also learned about the effectiveness of different dorm composting systems by researching and talking to other schools that compost in their dorms. We learned about their successes and the challenges they faced. For example, we found out that Harvard had recently implemented an effective dorm composting program, and we sought to emulate aspects of that system. Then, through our pilot program, we customized our dorm composting system to work best for Exeter.

Team Dynamic Reflection 

Team Reflection: Our group worked well together, as we all performed our tasks on time. None of us took on a clear “leadership” role in our group, but we held each other accountable for completing each of our tasks. Our group did a great job of splitting up this daunting project into small, manageable pieces. If one of us had more time one day, we would do a little more work than our groupmates, and when we had less time, a different groupmate would help carry the team. This ability to divide and conquer was a strength for us, but it also resulted in a slight weakness. Sometimes, if one or two people were working on one aspect of the project, the other group members would be a little out of the loop. However, we always caught everyone up to speed when this was the case, and therefore it was not a huge issue. 

Harrison: I worked on various parts of our project from emailing faculty members to doing write-ups, as in our group we didn’t have any predefined roles as to what aspects of the projects each of us was in charge of. At the beginning of each week, our group would discuss the tasks ahead of us and divide them evenly among ourselves- if we needed more than one person to perform a certain task, one of us would be the “leader” for that task. Personally, I started out by emailing and calling companies that sold compost bins to try to secure some free bins for our dorm pilot program or inquire about wholesale pricing for particular bins. I did run into some challenges when many of the compost bin companies appeared unresponsive, but in the end UTOPIA Kitchen was able to reduce our costs for a bulk order. Aside from communicating with other companies, I also contacted Ms. Degenova to put our group in touch with Agri-Cycle Energy, where our compost goes, and Casella, our waste management system. On campus, I arranged for our group to speak at a dorm heads meeting to gage faculty interest for our dorm composting initiative- I kept in contact with Dean Cahalane to set this up. I also helped write up a full, detailed model for our dorm composting program, and assisted my group with tasks such as the creation of a budget, brainstorming ideas for scripts, etc. Lastly, I was able to start a pilot program in my dorm (Main Street). While my dorm was too large to secure enough bins for, my limited pilot ran smoothly.

Bea: I did a little bit of everything in this project: some research, some emailing, some budgeting, model development, meeting planning and presenting. I think that in this group, each of us were leaders in some aspects of the project due to the way we divided tasks. For example, if I were assigned the task of emailing a certain person or researching a certain composting system, I would lead the discussion and action relating to those topics. I contacted individuals involved with sustainability at St. Mark’s, Milton, and Deerfield, and UNH to see if they had dorm composting. I asked my dorm head for permission to run a compost pilot program in McConnell, and after she agreed, I ran a dorm meeting on how to compost and why composting is important. After that, I emptied each of my dorm’s three bins each week and cleaned them. I helped create the budget for our program, set up a meeting with Ms. Henry in HR, and created the E-Proctor model for emptying the bins in our project. I also acted as a liaison between our group and E-Proctors, when discussing their possible involvement in the project, and created a spreadsheet for tracking dorm participation in our program. Lastly, I wrote the script for our final video. 

Joseph: As with Bea, I worked on a little bit of everything in the project. I did research on composting at various higher-education institutions and contacted relevant people to learn more. Through that, I was able to draft up various models for the group, such as the Individual Interest Model and more. I also worked with Harrison to contact companies and research potential products and suppliers. Through that, I was able to secure bulk-order pricing from Utopia Deals, which saved us almost a thousand dollars in compost bin costs. I ran part of our pilot program in my dorm, making sure everyone was educated and comfortable. Those responsibilities included washing the bins, taking out the compost, and checking for contamination. Additionally, I ran a secondary journal to document our brainstorming events, our meetings, and our pilot compost statistics. That journal will be included in our group folder as we near the end of the term. For the dorm composting model, I calculated all the financial information and estimations, providing a concise summary of our financial and model statistics. As with Bea, I worked with the co-heads of E-Proctors to see if we could push for their contribution and participation. With the group, I participated and contributed in meetings with administration, faculty, students, and more. Furthermore, I worked with several members on our final educational presentation, demonstration of learning, and more. Lastly, I edited our final video.

Mollie: In our group, I was the main person in charge of communicating with people on campus. We needed to email and meet with many people around the school in order to make this project progress smoothly. I wrote all of our emails to Mr. Biggins and Ms. Simmons, and I was in charge of setting up various meetings with them. I was also our main contact with dining services, as I was the one who emailed and met with Ms. Leonard and other members of the dining hall staff. Later on in the project, I was in charge of our communications with Dean Cahalane and all of the dorm heads while we tried to figure out which dorms were on board with the project. I kept a separate notebook to make sure that we could keep track of all our communications with people around campus. Besides that, like every member of our group, I was in charge of the pilot program in my dorm. I was also involved in various aspects of our project and helped write our demonstration of learning, as our group shared responsibility for most jobs.