College Receives 16K Grant for Solar-Powered Composters

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This past May, the College was jointly awarded a $16,000 Pennsylvania state grant for the manufacture and use of two solar-powered rotary composters. The composters, pictured below, are giant stainless steel barrels on wheels that completely contain food scraps and other waste as they compost. Normally, these barrels must be cranked by hand to allow oxygen through the mixture for proper decomposition; with the new grant money, however, these rotary composters will be outfitted with solar panels that allow the barrels to turn on their own. Both composters will be hopefully be used to compost nearly 24 cubic yards of campus-generated food waste later this year.

by Kanti Somani

Kanti Somani, sole owner of vermicomposting company COMPOST, applied for the Pennsylvania Compost Infrastructure Grant through his business in early 2008. Somani had completed a similar project, though without the solar power aspect, at Princeton University in 2002 and thought he might try it again. The PA grant funds 80% of the equipment cost for these new rotary composters’ two components – the tumblers themselves and the solar panels plus converters.

Somani’s business, founded in 2000, was borne out of a passion for composting that had also led Somani to begin programs teaching sustainable agriculture in Chester schools. “Basically what I do [through] is sell worm bins, worms, and books on composting throughout the US and Canada,” Somani explains, “I’ve always had the dream to build these [solar-powered rotary composters]. I basically just came up with the idea, and then looked to team up with a nonprofit or school to apply for the grant.”

Through some online digging, Somani found Swarthmore’s Good Food Project, a student organization dedicated to food-related sustainability on campus. The group annually sponsors area gardening and the eat-local “Farm to Fork” initiative along with the year-round composting program.

Currently, there are compost bins for compostable cups, lids, and plates set up around the coffee bars and Essie Mae’s. The bins are collected several times a week by students and are eventually transported by the Arboretum to the Swarthmore Municipal composting plant on the opposite side of the Crum.

Toby Altman ’10, a part of a contingent of composters within the Good Food Project, says most of Good Food’s composting efforts “have focused on various dining operations on campus. We have compost behind Sharples, so all of the Sharples staff can compost raw kitchen scraps, like cucumber peels.” The new solar-powered rotary composters would greatly expedite the current composting process by providing an entirely contained, controlled, and self-sustaining space for composting conveniently on-campus.

Initial receipt of the grant prompted the possibility of composting post-consumer food waste (that is, the stuff left on your tray after lunch and dinner) in addition to prep scraps from the Sharples kitchen. This, of course, would require either students or Sharples staff to carefully scrape plates after meals. Sophomores and upperclassmen may recall a period of few days last year when Good Food composters attempted to instruct the student body about how to separate food waste immediately after meals in Sharples. Altman could only describe that experience as “a total nightmare.”

Why not just have Good Food volunteers scraping plates on other end of the conveyor belt? “Part of the reason we don’t just do that is to give people a sense of the actual volume of post-consumer waste that could actually be composted,” Altman reasons.

For now, there are preliminary plans to incorporate solar-powered tumblers into the current composting process. Somani is ready to get things rolling. “This project goes back almost two years. I finally got the letter and call from Harrisburg. Finally, we’re here at this stage,” he says, “let’s get this thing kicked off!”

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