Current Initiatives - On Campus
As the green movement grows, so too does the understanding that prioritizing sustainability is crucial if we want to save our civilization, and it is critically important that educational institutions immediately take the lead. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders whose ideas, knowledge and actions will play a vital role in the fate of future generations.
At New England College, sustainability is becoming an essential component—not only in the curriculum, but also in the infrastructure of the school itself. This year, NEC was awarded a $300,000 grant in appropriation funding; the money, set aside by the Obama administration as part of the stimulus package, is intended to finance sustainable energy upgrades on the college campus. An important component of the stimulus is to create jobs in the burgeoning green economy, and to fund educational institutions so that they can create training programs to staff those jobs. The grant awarded to NEC is not merely for infrastructure improvement—but will be an integral part of a broader initiative to create an ecologically sustainable curriculum and community that will extend far beyond the boundaries of the college itself.
Currently under advisement, are ideas for the replacement of existing energy systems with possible solar powered, and wood pellet heating projects. In addition to a huge reduction in energy consumption, (estimates are a savings of more than half of existing expenditures) the upgrades will provide a significant decrease in NEC’s carbon footprint.
A switch to sustainable heating technology will also allow for improvement and expansion of the existing Environmental Science program. Further, the equipment will be incorporated into the curriculum of NEC’s new Environmental Sustainability major as well. Through training in the use and understanding of these green technologies, students will gain more functional knowledge, and therefore a more comprehensive and complete educational experience. In turn, a better education will produce graduates who possess greater expertise in their fields and who are more fully prepared to make contributions to local communities, society, and to humanity as a whole.
New England College has considered the value of “Greening” education and it’s potential to inspire a dialogue that references a wider spectrum of sustainability issues in every curricular focus—be it political, economic, social, or environmental, and, future energy upgrades are hopefully just the beginning of a community-wide cultural shift towards a greater and more comprehensive environment which fosters both environmental awareness as well as action.
For millions of years, indeed since life began, the earth has been recycling and reusing its waste. As seasons change and life moves through its many phases, organic matter collects on the ground forming a natural carpet. The top layer, comprised of common materials like pine needles, twigs, and leaves, hides something magical occurring just beneath its familiar-looking surface. There, billions of microorganisms (mostly fungi and bacteria), earthworms, and insects work to break down and decompose last year’s covering into humus, or compost, a product that those in the agricultural “know” replicate for their own use and refer to as “Black Gold” because of its incredible soil-building, mulching, and fertilizing qualities.
Among its many benefits, composting reduces garbage disposal fees and decreases the need for landfill space prolonging the life of these encroaching municipal areas. Minimizing organic waste ultimately helps to avoid the formation of landfill toxic leachate that can contaminate streams and groundwater, thereby minimizing costly methods required to clean contaminated soil. Further, eliminating decomposing organic matter from these sites greatly reduces the production of methane a highly combustible greenhouse gas that is believed to contribute to global climate change.
And if that isn’t enough, this rich, crumbly, dark brown or black topsoil not only has the ability to regenerate poor soil by improving fertility and texture, it also helps to reduce soil erosion, water usage, and plant disease, and increases agricultural yield by delivering organic waste back to the earth to nourish and grow new plants—naturally recycling trash into a completely renewable resource that can eliminate the need for petroleum-based fertilizers which harm the earth and its inhabitants. So ideal are the nutrients that compost releases back into the soil that it is, by far, superior to any human-engineered fertilizer—solid proof that trash really can become treasure!
In fact, compost is so valuable (and marketable), that specially designed devices for “quick” and neatly contained home composting are becoming available everywhere, and, new technologies have been developed that can actually provide commercial composting conditions for many businesses including food service establishments, universities, and hotels.
This year, environmental science major Debbie Lyons began her own composting experiment here at NEC. As part of her senior thesis, Lyons constructed two compost bins behind the Science building and is in the process of creating her own “Black Gold” produced directly from food scraps collected in Gilmore Hall.
Said Lyons, “I came up with the composting idea after trying to find some part of NEC that needs help with sustainability. I wanted to work with Gilmore from the start. It began with the idea of measuring how much is consumed and how much is wasted. Professor Mark Mitch then gave me the idea to establish a composting program/project.”
With the help of Professor Bob Seaman, Lyons built the bins using wooden pallets, 2x4s and chicken wire, and is now actively creating her compost pile from layers of organic matter or “browns and greens” (browns being dry materials like dead leaves, straw, newspaper and woody materials that provide carbon, and greens being moist materials like grass clippings, manures, and food scraps that provide nitrogen. Food items containing bones, meat, dairy or large amounts of fat are avoided as they can attract animals and cause disease.
Lyons picks up food scraps from Gilmore Hall every day—approximately two or three five-gallon buckets, putting collected waste at 60 to 70 gallons a week. She aerates the pile by turning it once a week with a pitchfork. The design of the bin also supplies some aeration. Core temperatures are monitored every six hours using four data loggers located within the compost pile itself.
“Right now I’m only using one bin, and it’s only halfway full. I wanted to measure how much can be produced by the kitchen, and also observe winter composting,” said Lyons. She is comparing her results with those of Professor Mitch’s, whose bin is next to the greenhouse, and says that her main concern for this experiment is temperature.
She commented that while her compost did maintain an elevated temperature during February, it did not reach the thermophilic temperature required by the EPA for commercial composting during the winter, so the success of this particular project is still being evaluated.
Although Lyons has tried to add as much “brown” material as she can, all of the waste that she gets from Gilmore is in the “green” category, and is therefore causing her compost to smell. However, the right balance of brown and green materials, in conjunction with proper air circulation and moisture, will eliminate any unpleasant odor and will facilitate a microbial process that can heat the core of a compost pile as high as 140 degrees. Reaching this temperature helps to destroy pathogens and weed seeds, and breaks down the layers of organic matter creating a ready-to-use soil enrichment that has the sweet aroma of good earth and the power to supply all the nutrients plants need for healthy growth. And, depending on the method used, this amazing fertilizer can be ready in as little as a month, or as long as one to two years.
Debbie graduates in December but plans to continue her work next summer and fall adapting her experiment and helping to organize and evaluate the feasibility of a larger-scale composting program for NEC.
**For more information on composting, and links on how to build or buy your own compost bin check out http://www.howtocompost.org/.
Backyard Composting. Harmonious Technologies, Harmonious Press, Sebastopol CA., 1992