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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Campus Composting

This is a story about a young man, horse manure, vegetable peels and beer...

The young man, Patrick Pfeifer, is a graduate student at Northern Arizona University. For his master's project Pfeifer created a large-scale composting program on the university's campus.

To get the project going, Pfeifer had to identify sources for raw materials and a site for the compost heaps. Then he got folks from campus food services, horse stables at the county fairgrounds, gardeners, and even a local microbrewery to donate organic remains that could otherwise have become trash. The raw waste material has been collected both with a pickup truck and by bicycle.

To make the project work, Pfeifer studied the biological processes of composting. That told him how much water and oxygen are needed. Using a 3-foot-long thermometer, he took daily temperature readings of his piles to track the activity of the microbes that transform waste into compost. That told him when to turn the piles, minimizing labor and fuel.

In one season the program transformed more than a hundred tons of waste into enough compost to nearly fill a big yellow school bus, and it required ten times less water than is generally used for large-scale composting. The compost he created contributes its fertility to community gardens, and is also used in campus landscaping.

Pfeifer is planning to graduate in May, but the composting program is so successful that the university is planning to continue the program.

Earth Notes is produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.