Before she graduated last year, Meradith Hoddinott ’12 wrote about the expansion of the college’s composting program from a nascent effort by “a handful of forward-thinking students” to an institutional commitment that involves all of the dining rooms on campus. Hoddinott’s article was an assignment in a course led by Nancy Cohen, lecturer in English Language and Literature. Cohen had asked students to write nonfiction stories that read like fiction. “I had suggested to Mera that she try to ‘follow the apple core,’” noted Cohen. “I think she did a fantastic job.” Hoddinott, now a chemist in New Haven, Ct., still keeps in touch with Cohen and solicits her advice about writing opportunities.
Victoria Henry ’13 stands beside a trash bin in a Smith College dining hall. The 21-year-old English major is wearing an unusual outfit, even by college standards: a pair of homemade wings, a wand, and a sign proudly declaring, “I am a compost fairy!” And with a face full of freckles and a short pixie cut, Henry looks every bit the part. Fairies, just like her, stand by the trash bins all over campus on select nights and tell people what should and should not be thrown in the trash.
The composting program at Smith takes food waste from all the dining rooms on campus and gives it to a local farm to be turned into natural fertilizer. At an institution the size of Smith, this means tens of thousands of pounds of food trash returning to the earth as nutrients instead of rotting uselessly in a landfill.
The “composting fairies” ask people to evaluate the trash they plan to dispose of. “Sometimes you have to make a spectacle of yourself to get people interested in something you are passionate about,” Henry muses. “Plus, I think people are afraid to throw their food away while I’m here.” She is part of a network of people very passionate about issues of sustainability.
One key player in that network is Robert Dombkowski, Facilities Management supervisor, a middle-aged man with grey hair and a trim mustache. Dombkowski recalls that the composting effort started with a handful of forward-thinking students who, in 2005, borrowed a pickup truck and a couple of five-gallon buckets from Facilities Management, and went to work. After collecting the compost from a dining room, they drove it to the Northampton Vocational High School farm and helped turn and spread it by hand.
“The founding group was very important in initializing the whole thing,” says Dombkowski. “Their commitment never seemed to waiver.” Despite the truck occasionally getting stuck at the farm, these environmental-minded pioneers proved to the college that a composting program held potential.
At about the same time, the City of Northampton announced that it would be closing the landfill, which gave the Smith administration an incentive to reduce the amount of waste heading there every day. Unfortunately, the passionate few initial students graduated and their pilot program dissolved. But the seed of an idea had been planted.
That is when Dombkowski heard of Peter Montague and Bridgmont Farm in Westhampton, Mass., just 10 miles from campus. Peter and his wife, Mary, live in a tidy white farmhouse that sits on a green hill overlooking a bend in Chesterfield Road. Peter, dressed in blue jeans and a jean button-up work shirt, has deep creases streaked with dirt around his hazel eyes. Peter bought his grandfather’s dairy farm in 1976 and became the seventh generation in their family to work this land.
Struggling to make it as a dairy farm, the couple began to raise grass-fed beef cattle and goats. Mary, with a button nose and short, strawberry-blonde hair, explains that every small farm in the area needs “something special” to stay afloat. And Smith compost gives them that niche. They no longer have to buy any outside fertilizer to grow hay to feed their animals.
The Smith compost is unloaded into an open cement bunker, the size of a large swimming pool, set in the side of the hill. Here compost’s transformation from food scraps to soil is written from pile to pile. The first pile has yesterday morning’s fruit salad. Peter moves to a pile that has been sitting since last September and pushes away the dry brown exterior to reveal a rich, sticky black fertilizer within. The only hint of its past life is the skeleton of a pineapple top and the odd plastic fork. By their front porch, Peter scoops up a handful of the final product from Mary’s flowerbed. He turns the black, grainy soil over in his hands and pauses to pick out a single serving coffee creamer.
With the infrastructure in place, the composting program began to take off. And more and more kitchens were added to the rotation. Dombkowski takes pleasure in orchestrating such a complex project and describes each step as a new puzzle to solve: “Okay now we’ve got an extra 800-1,200 pounds. Can we get it in one load?” Each new kitchen brought its own unique complications. Unlike most centralized dining services at other colleges, Smith has kitchens spread all over campus, which makes pick-up particularly challenging. Some dining rooms have physical limitations like entrances that make moving the 400-pound carts next to impossible.
Other issues arise from what Anne Finley, Dining Services area manager, describes as “The Ick Factor”” These range from the smell to far more serious insect problems. One hot July, Finley remembers, a dining hall had an invasion of maggots. But this is an extreme case. Nine months out of the year, the carts barely smell. Facilities Management thoroughly cleans the carts during breaks in semesters when fewer of the dining halls are open. They power wash and scrub and throw in as much elbow grease as possible to pry the food gunk from the cart walls.
As of 2012, every kitchen on campus was composting, producing an average 40,000 pounds of compost each month. Dombkowski calculated that a year’s worth of compost would cover the floor of Smith’s Indoor Track and Tennis facility in a layer two feet thick.
Composting this enormous amount of food scraps is not only benefiting the environment by reducing the volume of trash heading to the dump, it is also saving the college money. Before the composting program, food waste made up about a third of the total trash produced by the school. Composting costs less than trash removal and, Dombkowski estimates, saves the college tens of thousands of dollars a year.
A less quantifiable advantage of the program is the accountability it produces in the community, explains Kathy Zieja, director of Dining Services. Instead of just tossing something in the trash, the composting program helps foster good decisions, she says.
Now that it has expanded to all of the kitchens, Dombkowski actually hopes the program shrinks in the future–with less compost collected because of less waste.