The Dartmouth College Composting Facility

Ever since my undergrad days I’ve wondered about the location of the Dartmouth Composting Facility. I heard rumors, tales, ideas. Some people said it was out by the Organic Farm, while others said that it was out off of I-91 somewhere. I did a little bit of searching online, trying to see if an address was listed anywhere, but I found nothing.

Oh sure, I could have asked someone who knew for the location, but that almost seems like cheating. It would have ruined the mystery, like someone revealing how a magic trick is performed. No, to fully enjoy the mystery of the Composting Facility and what wonders were within (the only pictures I could find online were of the outside), I had to go there and see it for myself. And it turns out that it was hiding right under my nose all along.

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Photos of the Dartmouth Composting Facility (click to view the gallery)

After contacting Kathy Lambert, Sustainability Manager at Dartmouth and John Leigh, Manager of Waste & Recycling Programs at DHMC and inquiring about a visit to the Dartmouth Composting Facility, Kathy emailed me back with some helpful information about getting in touch with Gary Hill, FO&M Director of Custodial and Recycling Services at Dartmouth. I was very excited about going to see the composting facility, and was impressed when a tour was set up nearly immediately: we’d be visiting the following Tuesday!

It turns out that the tour was scheduled for an early date so a one Thomas Kehler could take a visit. Mr. Kehler, in the area for only a brief time, has some involvement with Chilean salmon production, and was interested in learning about composting waste streams associated with farming salmon. I’d never really thought about compost and salmon going hand in hand, but the more composting going on in the world, the merrier, eh?

After the short drive over to the facility, we spent about an hour touring with Lynn Coffran, FO&M Custodial Supervisor at Dartmouth, and Gary Hill. Lynn and Gary were very helpful in answering questions and in explaining the mechanisms and tools used in the composting process. Gary was especially proud of recent improvements and repairs and spoke of the positive impact these have had on the overall operation of the facility.

The building was originally built as a composting plant, but handled different materials than those currently being processed including biosolids in the form of sludge from the Hanover Water Treatment Plant. As the building transitioned from a joint venture between Dartmouth, Hanover, and Casella Waste Systems to being fully managed by Dartmouth, several changes occurred.

Under Casella management, the facility had a full-time employee and was licensed such that it could accept material from a wide variety of sources and even sell the final product. Under Dartmouth management, the decision was made to scale back the size and cost of the composting operation, turning the operator position into a half-time job. Without a full-time operator and without the extra licensing, the facility was (and still is) only able to accept material from DHMC and Dartmouth and is unable to sell or otherwise distribute the finished compost to outside entities. The restriction on output isn’t too much of a hassle for Dartmouth or DHMC as they can easily use all of the compost on their extensive sports fields and grounds.

Currently, the facility is undergoing steady improvement. Gary told me that the lechate from the composting process is stored in an large tank and is sent to the wastewater treatment plant. Given the location of the facility next to a hill, issues of backflow throught the leech field, and heavy rainfall in the area, the tank is often filled and water will back up inside the building. If the compost is overly wet, the composting process can become completely derailed. Gary indicated that there are currently trials going on at other schools looking into the feasibility of using compost leachate as a liquid fertilizer. If Dartmouth could use the leachate on all of its fields, not only would the load on the wastewater treatment plant be reduced, but keeping the tank from backing up would hopefully become a thing of the past.

Restaurants in Hanover have expressed an interest in delivering compostables to the Dartmouth Composting Facility. Enabling restaurants in Hanover to have access to a large-scale, local facility such as Dartmouth’s would be a great idea, however there are certain hurdles to making this happen. Due to the licensing restrictions I mentioned above, the facility would have to become significantly more robust, take on at least one full time employee, and would have to become much more rigorous about how it tests and composts the incoming waste. Gary mentioned that Dartmouth’s General Counsel office is looking into the process of operating this level of facility, but said that it is unlikely to occur at this time.

Citizens and businesses of Hanover would certainly benefit from the ability to send compostables to the Dartmouth facility, but in order to make this happen I believe that Hanover would have to make a strong financial contribution to the operation of the facility and take on a commitment to fund the facility at this level for several years. In this time of economic lean, Hanover may balk at making that large and expensive a commitment without a clear mandate from its citizens.

DHMC has taken a short hiatus from composting and will start sending compostables to the facility in about a week, we were told by John Leigh, Manager of Waste & Recycling Programs at DHMC. I’m personally enthusiastic about DHMC starting up the composting program again and I’m excited about finding ways to divert food waste from all of the cafeterias at DHMC out of the trash and into the composting facility. With the composting facility so close by and with such a large amount of compostable material being used at the cafeterias, I’m sure that we can find a way to make this happen!

With luck, Dartmouth will continue to improve the physical plant and will build the composting facility into a top-notch, quick, and efficient tool for turning waste into valuable soil amendments. Gary and Lynn are both very enthusiastic about composting at Dartmouth and are proud of what the composting facility has done and are committed to its future potential. With the facility in their hands, we’re sailing along marvelously well. As for you, the Dartmouth Community, there’s only one thing you need to worry about: What am I currently throwing in the trash that I could be composting?

–Q

Oh, and one more quick fact: The facility is currently processing about 250-260 tons of waste a year, but Gary tells me that at peak operation it can handle up to 1500 tons. That’s a lot of compost!

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3 thoughts on “The Dartmouth College Composting Facility

  1. Getting Green at Central Stores « Things that have escaped from my mind

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