From the ground up

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Compost program limits waste by producing soil for campus use.

Patrick Pfeifer, a second-year graduate student in the Sustainable Communities master’s program, knew he could play a part in creating a greener campus. The university’s commitment to sustainability includes achieving carbon-neutrality by 2020 and an investment in eight LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified buildings, but Pfeifer realized that composting – an important component of sustainability – was not part of the overall picture. 

To address these concerns, Pfeifer founded the compost program, which serves as an example of how ingenuity and resourcefulness can make a difference in the environment and the community.   

Pfeifer initially sought help from the Northern Arizona University Green Fund and other local organizations to help create a compost site on south campus. After selecting the location, Pfeifer recruited a handful of volunteers to help collect compost, and the program’s membership has grown steadily since then.

“The point of the compost program is to allow students to actively participate in the community, rather than passively learning in the classroom,” Pfeifer says. “We’re carefully documenting different methods for different compost piles, which teaches students to use controlled research processes and skills.”

Humble beginnings

In an effort to spread environmental awareness, Pfeifer and his staff of more than 15 volunteers have recruited students from all over campus. Some first heard of the compost program through its involvement with the Students for Sustainable Living and Urban Gardening (SSLUG) Club; others have earned credit through first-year seminar courses that reward them for their efforts in creating an environmentally-friendly campus.

Mark Gallo, a junior majoring in environmental studies who also serves as one of the organization’s compost technicians, says that in the compost program's earliest days, a handful of volunteers would walk compost pickups back to the municipal site on foot.

“It started on a really small scale,” Gallo says. “I got involved in composting early on, where we started off walking pickups from the DuBois Center and other places on south campus.”

As the compost program grew and gained more funding, Pfeifer ultimately worked to obtain a truck to help with transportation. Later, he developed Velo Composting, an organization that uses bike-pulling trailers to move larger loads at a much faster rate.

The road to a cleaner Flagstaff

On average, members of the compost program collect waste every weekday for two hours. A typical day starts on south campus, where two volunteers pick up the truck.

Prior to arriving, workers at the University Union and Du Bois Center sort out their waste into a handful of 32-gallon waste bins. After volunteers pick up the waste, which can add up to 2,000 pounds a day, they return to the compost site where they test its moisture levels and temperature. Following these tests, they break down the waste and mix in buckets of manure and wood chips to increase the fertility of the compost.

Pfeifer believes this work enables students to benefit from real scientific research, especially with the sheer amount of compost to be studied.

“We’ve got 95,000 pounds of compost on the site that we’ve collected since May,” Pfeifer says. “Now that school’s back in session, we’re picking up around 10,000 pounds of compost a week that we divert from the landfill and turn into soil for use in gardens on campus.”

Northern Arizona University isn’t the only beneficiary of the compost program's work; the group also collects waste from Flagstaff Medical Center and Mother Road Brewery, among other off-campus locations. Gallo says the compost program participates in this extra work to demonstrate that their labor can leave an impact on the Flagstaff community. 

“Despite the extra stops, it’s worth it,” Gallo says. “It’s not a hard thing to do, yet it makes such a huge difference. It’s what we’ll need as an alternative to fertilize because it's simple, easy, and you can grow great food out of it. The compost can go far in gardens across campus or community gardens across town. Composting creates a closed loop that puts waste to good use.”

An enriching experience

Pfeifer believes the future viability of the compost program lies in its ability to help the community and program members alike. 

“I think the biggest thing that students are learning from working on this project is that they can make a difference,” Pfeifer says. “This group of student volunteers has had some great ideas this semester that we’ve been able to implement to keep the program student-oriented; they can be active members in their community, make a difference, and do something they believe in. The foundations are there to make good things happen.”