May 20, 2008 | General

Composting Helps Anchor University's Climate Commitment

BioCycle May 2008, Vol. 49, No. 5, p. 28
Environmental stewardship is well-rooted at Allegheny College, where an in-vessel composting unit was installed in 2001 to process pre and postconsumer food scraps.
Robert Spencer

AS a 1976 graduate of Allegheny College’s fledgling environmental studies program, I have followed with particular interest this small liberal arts college’s strides in energy conservation, food scraps composting, and numerous sustainability initiatives. During my senior year I was on the college’s first energy conservation committee. Over the next 30 years, its programs continued to grow in stature.
Located in Meadville, Pennsylvania, an industrial community 30 miles south of the city of Erie, Allegheny College was founded in 1815. As the home of the Talon Corporation, the town had been known as “Zipper City,” and more recently as “Tool City” due to numerous tool and die machine shops. Meadville is also the Crawford County seat, and like many small college towns, has a close relationship with the college.

To advance its community outreach goals in sustainability, Allegheny College established the Center for Economic and Environmental Development (CEED) in 1997. Built by an interdisciplinary group of faculty from the Art, Economics, Political Science and English departments, the various CEED programs implement campus and community sustainability projects, giving students, faculty and staff the opportunity to live and learn practices that graduates will carry with them into their lives and future careers.
Projects have included a watershed protection programs with area elementary and secondary schools; Environmental Health Initiative, which surveys the risks and assesses the damage of environmental factors on the health of the community; Strategic Environmental Management Initiative, which works with area businesses to reduce costly waste streams and reinvent and
promote the use of sustainable products and production processes; and Sustainable Forestry Project that brings local forest landowners and forestry professionals together to improve woodlot management practices, and substantially increase the economic contribution of the wood products industry in the region.
“CEED was our first major civic engagement initiative since the establishment of our Community Service Office several years prior,” says Richard Cook, President of Allegheny College. “Allegheny has a broad and deep culture of civic engagement and service, and we consider the development of character and civic responsibility an important part of our mission.”
Several years ago, he adds, the Board of Trustees adopted a set of environmental guiding principles that explicitly expanded the institutional mission to include environmental responsibility and sustainability. “This was rather rare at the time, but many other colleges are now moving in this direction,” notes Cook. “When the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) was in its early stages, Allegheny College became an early signatory. Because of the Board’s commitment to environmental principles, this was a straightforward decision. The college had long been engaged in sustainability issues from forestry to local economies, and from agriculture to complex ecosystems. The Climate Commitment was an extension of our philosophy into a national movement.”
In 2001, Allegheny became the first college in Pennsylvania with an in-vessel composting operation for food scraps. It purchased a Wright Environmental compost system and installed it in a new building near the athletic fields. The unit is totally enclosed except for a compost discharge conveyor that passes through the wall. A biofilter is a permanent part of the unit. A grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) paid for the vessel and associated equipment required to run the compost unit, for a total cost of $247,000.
The school composts 800 to 1,000 pounds/ day of kitchen preparation food waste from one dining hall, as well as one food court that collects postconsumer waste, including biodegradable plates and cutlery. Approximately 100 pounds of wood chips are mixed with each 200 pounds of food scraps prior to loading in the aerated vessel to provide porosity during the 14- to 16-day retention time. After discharge, material is mixed with hay and animal manure for further composting in outdoor windrows. The grounds crews found that compost from straight food scraps contained excessive concentrations of salt for healthy plant growth, so the compost is blended with other organic materials to reduce salt concentrations. Approximately 75 tons of compost are produced annually.
“We do not keep a running tab on dollars saved since our waste hauler does not charge by weight, but by cubic yards of material,” says Ken Hanna, Director of the school’s physical plant. “However, we estimate that the college saves approximately $20,000/ year in topdressing, topsoil and mulch, since we use the compost product on our grounds.” The college also manufactures compost tea to use as an organic fertilizer. There are very few maintenance problems with the composting vessel, he adds. “We lost a few teeth in the spinner during early operations due to ice, but we corrected that problem. Other than an occasional minor repair the unit has not needed any major replacement parts.”
As part of the ACUPCC, participating institutions agree to a set of policies and actions intended to reduce their carbon footprint. One of the first steps is to conduct a carbon inventory of the campus. “A carbon inventory is identifying specific measures for the college to take on the way to climate neutrality,” explains President Cook. “Allegheny was well ahead of many institutions when we signed onto the Climate Commitment. For example, several years ago we adopted a ‘green’ campus landscaping initiative designed to drastically reduce or even eliminate use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers for campus landscaping. This innovative program was funded by an alumnus with a nationally known record of ‘green’ development. When our carbon inventory is complete, we will take further steps to plan reductions on the way to neutrality.”
The budget for these projects comes from a combination of gifts, grants and operating funds. But, Cook points out, these initiatives also make sound economic sense. “There is no one who would assert that it makes sense to waste energy and dollars through gross inefficiencies. It is a sound business decision and execution of fiduciary responsibility to make our campus facilities energy- and materials-efficient. This approach keeps us out of endless debates about the reality, cause and seriousness of global climate change. We have several million dollars worth of building improvements that have attractive economic paybacks – and it is those we will concentrate on first. Why would anyone think that financial returns of 10 to 50 percent annually are not worth taking right now? While we are taking these significant steps, there will be time to gather more data and to plan more footprint reductions. It is a puzzle to me why so many campuses and other entities get hung up in debates over the uncertainties of global climate change when there are so many economically wise measures that can and should be taken now.”
Robert Spencer, a Contributing Editor to BioCycle, is an Environmental Planning Consultant based in Vernon, Vermont.
OVER the past seven years, since food scraps composting began at Allegheny College, a host of other green initiatives have been launched:
o Local Foods Network program to incorporate locally grown food into the college’s dining halls, and to facilitate cooperation among local producers, markets and consumers to provide outlets for local foods on campus and in the community;
o Organic landscaping practices for campus grounds;
o Greenhouse gas inventory to establish a baseline for determining how to decrease the college’s carbon footprint;
o Allegheny College Climate Change Initiative to increase public awareness and education around climate change;
o Opening a LEED-qualified residential hall in 2006, and a commitment for future construction to be LEED-certified;
o Membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (;
o Signatory of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment; one of the original 11 colleges and universities to announce a partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI); first college in the country to issue a request for proposals for energy audits and efficiency retrofits under the CCI partnership; and
o Purchase of 15 percent wind generated power, qualifying Allegheny as a Green Power Partner by the US EPA.

Sign up