Solid waste is not a typical topic of conversation. However, for 15 KU students enrolled in Introduction to Environmental Science (ENV100) it was the highlight of their afternoon. On Friday, March 24, Rodale Institute’s very own Compost Production Specialist, Rick Carr, was invited by Julie Palkendo, class instructor, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Interim Coordinator of the Environmental Science Program at KU, to lecture a group of mainly freshmen and sophomores about compost and how composting fits into the larger picture of solid waste management.
Carr, a seasoned presenter, knew how to take an awkward topic such as the contents of an average American’s trashcan and turn it into an entertaining, yet educational discussion. The lecture opened with a view on solid waste by the numbers. Carr explained the trends in U.S. solid waste generation and the quantity of specific categories of materials such as cans and bottles, paper, yard debris, wood, etc. Students were shocked to learn that on average U.S. citizens generate 4.4 pounds of waste per person, per day, according EPA’s Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013 report. Food waste and yard debris, which account for 28% of all waste generated in the U.S., is an “opportunity for individuals to make immediate impacts on waste generation,” Carr said. “These materials are easily compostable in most backyard composting systems,” Carr said while transitioning the lecture to discuss how composting applies to solid waste management.
But not all of the presentation was under roof. Students were given a demonstration on a number of different backyard composting systems and a gut-wrenching view into a 90-gallon container containing foul food waste. At this point, Carr explains to his audience that, “while this container may smell terrible, you should know that each one of these composting systems contains an equal or greater amount of this food snot, but you wouldn’t know it unless I told you, or you were bold enough to dig for yourself.” Carr also adds that, “composting is managed aerobic decomposition – effective management is the key.” When organic residuals such as food waste and the compost piles they are dumped into are not managed properly, a litany of issues are likely to occur.
Finally, the group took a muddy walk out to Rodale Institute’s large-scale composting site, and as Carr says, “arguable the hottest spot in all of Rodale.” From there, Carr provided the class with a clear image of the awesome power of composting: on one side were several tons of mixed vegetable and farm waste, on the other side was finished compost. Carr explained that these organic residuals as well as animal manures, leaves, and woody debris are managed in such a way to maximize decomposition while avoiding issues with pests and odors. The final product is a valuable soil amendment for plant production. Carr saved the best for last: turning the compost with a massive compost turner and tractor. He even allowed one lucky student to ride with him at a screaming 0.1 mph while turning.
Carr hopes the class went away with a new perspective on solid waste management and the benefits of composting. He also challenged them not to be one of the 4.4-pound generators in the U.S. Given the expressions on their faces, though some flashed signs of disgust at times when examining the piles of food waste, which Carr takes as a “sign of grabbing the audience’s attention,” the entire group was pleased with the presentation.