Setting an example

Features - Organics

Marshall University leads the way for organics processing in West Virginia by opening the first commercial composting facility in the state.

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June 7, 2021

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As the interest in organics waste diversion continues to gain traction across the United States, many businesses, municipalities and universities have led the pack in implementing large-scale food waste and composting infrastructure to tackle this critical waste stream.

Such trailblazing efforts can be seen at Marshall University, where the university’s sustainability department is preparing to open the first commercial composting facility in the state of West Virginia.

When fully operational, the facility will be the second-largest university compost facility in the eastern U.S. and will have the capacity to compost 8 tons of organic waste per day.

“I think [the opening of the facility] is an opportunity for [Marshall University] to be a leader in our state,” says Marshall University’s Sustainability Manager Amy Parsons-White, who oversaw the design of the compost facility. “We’re producing a valuable product for our community, and I think that’s an important part, too.”

“I think [the opening of the facility] is an opportunity for [Marshall University] to be a leader in our state. We’re producing a valuable product for our community, and I think that’s an important part, too.” –Marshall University’s Sustainability Manager Amy Parsons-White

Located just three miles from the university’s main campus in Huntington, West Virginia, the facility is housed in a 5,000-square-foot building that was already present on the property. According to Parsons-White, the existing site did not need to undergo any significant structural changes but did need more insulation and an additional garage door added for hauling finished compost out of the building.

“[The building] is only 50 feet by 100 feet, so it’s not a very big footprint at all,” she says. “Nothing would have necessarily had to have been done, but we just chose to make the building a little more comfortable for our operations.”

In addition to these minor renovations, the building is undergoing an upgrade to three-phase power, which Parsons-White says is a proactive step to prepare for any possible expansions with limited downtime.

PROCESSING THE ORGANICS

To process the university’s organic waste, which includes food waste, lawn waste, white office paper, cardboard and horse manure from a nearby equine rescue, the university’s sustainability department invested in an XACT Systems BioReactor composter.

“I wanted something that would run very efficiently, would have a quick turnover and also reduce our landfill waste in a very quick, efficient way,” says Parsons-White on the qualities she was looking for in a potential composter. “When I was doing research, I saw the digestor we ended up buying, and it can take in 8 tons per day and breaks everything down within 5 days. That is more than what we would need for our campus, so that gives us room to expand.”

Prior to entering the digestor, organics will first go through a JWC Environmental, Santa Ana, California, shredder, which grinds the waste down to half-inch fractions. These fractions are then loaded into the digestor where they will be turned at 10 rotations per hour.

“The [BioReactor] keeps the [organics] slowly moving,” says Parsons-White. “So, once the composting begins and the temperature rises, it’s insulated to hold the temperature between 100- and 140-degrees Fahrenheit. As the materials break down, it moves forward in the tube. Once it’s completely broken down, then you can really sift out the other end a finished compost.”

The facility also includes a Worm Wigwam vermicomposting bin, which will process half of the resulting compost through earthworm digestion and aerobic decomposition. Manufactured by Cottage Grove, Oregon-based Sustainable Agricultural Technologies Inc., the 5- by 40-foot bin holds 50,000 red wiggler worms and can produce up to 60 pounds of vermicompost per week.

Finished compost will then be bagged by a sandbag-filling machine from the Sandbag Store LLC, Las Vegas. The compost will be branded as Herd Dirt, which will be available for sale to the public.

CAMPUS COLLECTION

Parsons-White says organics to be processed will be collected from university kitchens, as well as dormitories and other locations throughout campus.

“Because we have the digestor, we can actually compost everything,” she says. “We can break down bones, fat and those kinds of things, so we’ve trained [our kitchen staff] to pick out any plastics that might be found with the organic waste. The rest can go in the compost container, including the napkins.”

Any collected organic waste will be hauled to the compost facility by trucks overseen by the sustainability department. The trucks will be sent out twice daily to the kitchens and campus bins.

“[The trucks] go all over campus every day anyway to pick up our recycling and take it to our recycling compactor. So, while they’re doing that, they’ll pick up the composting from the kitchens and other locations throughout campus and run those up to our compost facility,” says Parsons-White.

As for the university’s yard waste, Marshall’s grounds department has their own trucks that will pick up leaves and tree branches to bring to the facility.

According to the university, the compost facility’s operations will help reduce Marshall’s carbon footprint by reducing waste hauled to landfills and will save the university thousands of dollars each year in waste hauling fees.

“For one, the organic waste won’t be hauled as far away,” says Parsons-White. “We’re only hauling it 3 miles away to the compost facility, and we’re using small pickup trucks—not large trucks. But also, the amount of methane produced will be reduced because [the waste is being processed through] aerobic digestion, so it doesn’t actually produce methane.”

OPENING DOORS

While the composting facility will be an integral part to expanding the university’s green waste infrastructure, Parsons-White says it will also play a significant role in a recently added program within Marshall’s College of Science.

Once completed, the facility will act as an educational laboratory for soil chemistry and soil science courses in the university’s specialty agricultural degree program. In addition to housing these courses, scientists within the College of Science will also be using the facility to conduct research on vermiculture.

The research will cover the different types of insects—which can include worms, red wigglers or black soldier flies—and look at how they can affect the rate of breakdown of the organic materials, as well as the quality of the end product produced.

“The facility will also allow us to do experiments with added microbes,” Parsons-White says. “We can add different microbes to the digester and then test the product that is produced to see which microbes work the best, or if we need to add or reduce microbes of different kinds.”

With operations set to commence at the beginning of June, Parsons-White says she believes the facility will set an example for others interested in following in the university’s footsteps.

“We’re going to be producing valuable compost, working with our community and [holding] workshops. When other communities and universities in our area see it, we really hope that they follow along,” she says. “We’ve already been contacted by others that are interested, and they’re keeping tabs on our success and how things are progressing.

“It’s exciting to see [those discussions] start up. I think this really opens the door for Marshall to become a leader in composting and green infrastructure [in West Virginia].”

The author is the assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.