Montclair State “Goes Green” with Large-Scale Food Composter

Photo: Mike Peters

(Left to right) Nicholas Smith-Sebasto speaks to Bradford School students Paige Reddington, Justin Ashbrook, Dallas Young, and their teacher, Aysha Ames. Holding the shovel of compost is Montclair State senior Christine Tischio.

Montclair State is ahead of the curve in the “green revolution” as the owner/operator of one of the few university-based aerobic composters in the nation. The composter, which is a demonstration model, can process a total of two cubic yards (approximately two tons) of food residue daily, is inexpensive to run (it costs about $3 a day), and is quiet and odor-free.

“The amount of food residue that ends up in landfills is astonishing,” says Nicholas Smith-Sebasto, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies and the man in charge of the composter. “The food waste that is thrown out and ends up in landfills is a contributing factor to the ‘build out’ problem that has reached a critical point in New Jersey.”

In October, members of the environmental consortium, New Jersey Food Waste Recycling Initiative (NJFWRI), attended a demonstration of the composter. The members, comprised of individuals from organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Trenton Fuel Works, A&P Supermarkets, Whole Foods Stores, local municipalities, and Rutgers and Princeton universities watched as Smith-Sebasto demonstrated each step of the process from loading a hopper with food residue to extracting finished compost from the back of the unit.

Smith-Sebasto says that approximately one ton of food is diverted from the Montclair State waste stream each month into the composter. This food residue, which is collected through one location of the University’s food services vendor, Sodexho, is emptied into the bio-mixer where it is combined with wood chips, which act as a “bulking agent” to extract moisture while providing a source of carbon for the microbes that break down the food matter.

The mixture reaches a temperature of around 130 degrees Fahrenheit for several days, so it is odor-free, Smith-Sebasto explains. The material is rotated slowly (four times an hour, four times each day) to help break down the food residue, and three days later, it is completely broken down into usable material that is used to fertilize green spaces on campus.

The aerobic composter has been in operation since it arrived at Montclair State in the summer of 2007. Smith-Sebasto hopes that the success of the demonstration unit will help in his efforts to upgrade to a larger system that will be able to handle food recycling for the entire University. He points out that taking the residue of food that came from the earth and turning it into compost that is then returned to the earth is true recycling. “Do you want to be green?” he asks. “Well it doesn’t get any greener than this.”