By Travis Robinett
Not long ago, a student group called the ecoAmbassadors at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., set out to enhance the university’s composting system with the help of an EPA partnership and grant assistance through EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program. I recently had the pleasure to see firsthand the successful implementation of these students’ hard work.
Haskell University has improved its composting system this semester, with support from EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Liz Blackburn, tribal solid waste coordinator with EPA Region 7’s Air and Waste Management Division, set up a meeting recently between Haskell students and Arthur Fink, KDHE composting expert, who was consulted on their plan. He explained how best to monitor and adjust the pile, helping waste break down into healthy compost. Food waste collection for the new system began in early March 2017.
Region 7 has assisted students in bringing composting to Haskell since 2015, building on previous joint efforts from a Memorandum of Agreement between EPA and the university. Blackburn said she’s proud to continue strengthening that partnership.
“It’s exciting, because I think improving waste management is the best way to target pollution prevention and reduction,” she said.
In 2015, Haskell’s ecoAmbassadors set out to improve the school’s food-waste management with grant assistance through EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program. The composting system is a major piece of their waste reduction plan, which arose after fall 2015 assessments at Haskell’s dining hall showed how much food could be composted.
Haskell started composting shortly afterward with a one-bin system, but the students wanted to improve their methods. So they sought out ideas from a variety of places, including EPA and nearby Tribal Nations.
Based on what they learned, students built three adjacent bins with reused untreated wood pallets. The pallets allow for airflow, which keeps the compost from producing methane. Having three bins allows for older piles to break down while a new one begins.
According to EPA’s composting website, it takes anywhere from two months to two years for food waste to become dark, nutrient-rich compost. Fink said to help it break down, one key aspect to focus on is temperature. He brought a long composting thermometer, which measures the temperature underneath the pile’s surface.
“At 140 degrees Fahrenheit, most pathogens will be destroyed,” Fink said. “It also denatures any seeds.”
If the temperature drops to 120 degrees and the waste hasn’t broken down yet, he said it’s time to turn the pile.
One of the big benefits of composting and diverting food, Fink said, is that food takes up a lot of landfill space and is heavy to transport. Also in landfills, food often breaks down without oxygen, giving off methane as a byproduct.
Steven Peña, a student in Haskell’s American Indian Studies Program, said he hopes this effort is successful enough that in two to three years, the university can build something more permanent with concrete.
“Also, composting is something you can use at home,” Peña said. “We’re hoping people here take this habit with them.”
About the Author: Travis Robinett has been a Student Intern at EPA Region 7 since June 2016. He is a second-year graduate student at the University of Kansas (KU), working toward a master’s degree in environmental assessment, and holds two bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English from KU. Travis has a passion for sustainability, public service, teaching, volunteering, and the great outdoors.