ISU promotes sustainability via an all-university compost facility

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University has opened a composting facility that can handle more than 10,000 tons of organic wastes annually -- wastes that come from various campus sources.

Located next to the ISU Dairy Farm, the facility is designed to handle solid organic waste in an environmentally responsible manner. Seven, 80-foot by 120-foot hoop barns contain the compost, which is composed of yard waste, manure and bedding from ISU farms, organic greenhouse waste, biomass research waste and -- beginning this fall -- food waste from campus dining facilities.

ISU Dining is conducting tests to determine how much waste is produced each day. Officials then hope to figure out the most efficient way to dispose of the waste at the compost facility.

"This compost facility allows ISU Dining to be a part of an all-university project that brings waste full-circle," said ISU Dining Director Nancy Levandowski.

"Iowa State wants to be a leader in sustainability, and this compost facility contributes to that goal," said Mark Honeyman, professor of animal science and coordinator of ISU research farms. "Composting is a great way to demonstrate an alternative use for manure and waste biomass with the end result as an organic, usable product on campus."

At the dairy farm, after the liquid waste is separated from the dairy manure, the nitrogen-rich manure solids are mixed with carbon-rich campus yard waste, cornstalks and livestock bedding into rows of compost called windrows. The windrows are turned and aerated periodically to promote composting. The recipe of products creates a slow burn and aerobic oxidation process resulting in a 50 percent reduction in the volume of materials. This process takes eight weeks. The result is an odorless compost that makes a high-quality soil amendment when mixed with sand and soil for campus landscaping.

"A well-run composting facility should not generate odor," said Tim Goode, ISU Compost Facility superintendent. "This is superior to field application of manure and superior to stockpiling manure and other waste materials during times when field application isn't possible because of weather conditions."

The facility generates about 100 tons of compost each week. The compost is being used around construction sites to replenish uprooted soil, campus livestock bedding, flower beds, and horticultural and agronomic plots.

"This is an influential project as it couples sustainability with the power of the university," said Honeyman. "It's intuitively the right thing to do as it takes waste and turns it into something valuable -- directly and positively impacting the university's goals of sustainability."

The compost facility is an entirely self-supporting service unit, as it will charge a fee for each ton brought to the facility. All compost leaving the site will also be weighed and charged to the department using the material.

"We are working hard to make the project not only resource sustainable but also budget sustainable," said Goode. "We have structured the fees to be advantageous for the departments who will be supplying material as well as those using the finished product."

The compost project will only use material from the university and will not be available to the public.

"I think it is appropriate for a land-grant university to have such a project," said Honeyman. "It will serve as a learning center for students, Extension staff, agriculture and engineering research projects -- and it's all right here on campus."