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Rich compost from student

Jun 17, 2023

Molly Robbins of Duluth and Anna Tipton of Stone Mountain work at the GCSU composting site.

You can't get there by GPS. There are no signs to direct you. But just yards from Hwy 49 in Milledgeville, a little hillside with a great view is abuzz with the sounds and smells of rotating and baking leftover food.

An all-female team works this spot and plans to sell their compost, starting this fall.

Not many universities have a student-led compost program. The site diverts about 1,000 pounds of food waste from the Georgia College & State University dining hall every week.

That's roughly 25,000 pounds per year or 1,000 cubic feet of food waste that doesn't end up in landfills. Currently, about one-fourth of all landfill garbage is food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"About 40% of food consumed in the United States ends up in landfills. Around the country, we’re outgrowing our landfills," said compost manager Molly Robbins, a senior environmental sciences major from Duluth.

"Compost is incredible for soil health. It increases the water-holding capacity of soil," she said. "It introduces new nutrients into the soil, allowing for microbial growth which is super important to suppress disease."

Georgia College's Office of Sustainability operates the compost site. Since it opened in 2017, more than 70,000 pounds of food waste have been diverted from area landfills and turned into amended soil—superior to store-bought compost.

Senior environmental sciences major and compost assistant Anna Lippy of Stone Mountain is creating a business plan to sell 5-gallon plastic buckets of compost to local homeowners for a nominal fee. It might be called "PawPost" or "Georgia College Compost."

This material "is far superior" to anything found in hardware and garden stores, according to Robbins. Last year, a campus environmental sciences study "proved our compost to be incredible and helped grow some really hearty tomatoes," she said.

Robbins and Lippy work the site daily, along with newly-recruited compost assistant and first-year nursing major Ama Kpoyizoun of Togo, Africa.

Bins of leftover food are collected from the dining hall, and waste is put through a mixer with a spinning rake-like tool. Students pull out non-degradable items like wax liners, plastic cups or aluminum foil. They mix in a carbon source, like sawdust and wood chips. The material moves up into an ‘in-vessel,’ where it heats, slowly rotating for about three weeks.

The material is then moved to nearby tarps and turned by shovel every week—allowing piles to aerate and "cook." Once it heats to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, the team knows bacterial microbes are working to break down waste.

The entire process takes about three months. The final product is sifted through wire screens, then loaded into large bins and taken to the West Campus Garden for use.

Once compost is for sale, the university will use proceeds to improve and expand its project. In the future, leftovers from area schools and restaurants could be included.

"Coming to Georgia College, I didn't know we had a compost operation. It would’ve made me all the more excited if I had," Robbins said. "It's one of my major passions to be able to interact with our food system in a unique way and educate people on why it's important to know where your food goes and to care about it."

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