Composting at Northwood: It’s Not Just Rotten Food

Northwood’s campus, though small, is embedded into the nature that surrounds it. We have three expansive fields, trees and grass surrounding the buildings, and an Adirondack pavilion. In order to tend to this greenery, we rely mainly on fertilizers bought from outside sources, which are quite expensive. There is a way to become self-sustainable so that the school does not have to spend money on fertilizer while reducing waste produced by our community: composting.


Students collect food waste from the kitchen in plastic buckets and bring it to the compost bin. Photo: provided.

Composting is a process by which organic waste such as food, leaves, or lawn clippings, decomposes in a controlled environment to produce compost, a soil-like material that is full of nutrients. For the waste to properly break down, it must be kept moist and aerated regularly to keep decomposition aerobic so the food does not simply rot in anaerobic fashion. It can be then used in gardens as a form of fertilizer to improve the quality of plants grown there. The most commonly used method has three stages, and three piles – one where the food goes in, one where it is mid – decomposition, and one for the end stages when it becomes usable. The decomposition takes anywhere from three months to a year, depending on conditions such as temperature and moisture.

Composting at Northwood is a small-scale student-led project run by the sustainability club. It is an outdoor three-bin system, each for one stage of the composting process. The organic material used comes from our kitchen, supplying the bins with food waste. The other components, such as the wood chips and bins, were paid for by the head of sustainability club, Mr. Eaton. Every few days, members of the club collect food waste and bring it to the bins where it begins the composting process. To date, the only food collected are scraps leftover from the cooking process. So far, no food waste from students is gathered.

The size of the bins used for the composting process is limited, and unable to support the waste produced by 170 students. As a result, only a small percentage of our food waste ends up composted. The rest goes to the landfill. The breakdown of food in landfills ends up being anaerobic, or without oxygen, which ends up in food rot instead of compost. This released the carbon from the plants back into the atmosphere, as well as methane. Both gases, though natural, are detrimental to the environment in large quantities. As Katie Culpepper, the farm manager at North Country School and a speaker at the Adirondack Youth Climate Program asks, “Are we finding ways to store carbon, to take it out of the atmosphere, which I think we all know we want to do, or are we releasing methane gas, which is even more powerful than carbon?”


Northwood’s compost system behind the Friedlander Science Building.

Our region’s climate, too, limits this process. For an outdoor system, the environment has a huge impact: the Adirondacks regularly reach freezing temperatures from October to April, eliminating about half of the year where composting is viable. Over the summer, students cannot run the composting, so in reality fewer than four months of the school year are truly used for outdoor composting – barely enough to get through the first stage. Hence, our compost output is minimal at best and not enough to use for our grounds.

The simplest way to help improve the rate and amount of material able to be composted at Northwood is to have an indoor composting facility. A building dedicated to decomposition may seem fanciful, but is in fact quite realistic. The building would not have to be large, only the size of a shed, but would have to be insulated from the freezing temps outside. In this way, we could compost the entire school year, increasing the suitable time period by six months. This would cost money, but would save money long-term by reducing costs for ground maintenance. It would not be disgusting, either. Properly-made compost, despite being made of food, smells more like soil than rot, giving a pleasant, earthy aroma.

This would help our environmental impact, too, by reducing the amount of food sent to landfills. Not only would this be good for our community, but educating our diverse group of students on the ease and benefits of composting could help spread awareness to other places. Any step towards a greener community is an important one, and this one could also save money for Northwood.

If you would like to start a 3-bin composting system, here are some sources:


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