Montclair State University Promotes “Going Green” with Large-Scale Food Composter

Professor demonstrates aerobic composter to environmental consortium.

Photo by Mike Peters

Professor Nicholas Smith-Sebasto loads the composter's bio-mixer with food residue.

Montclair State University recently gave a demonstration of its newest contribution to the “green revolution:” one of the few university-based aerobic composters in the nation. The composter can process a total of 2 cubic yards (approximately 2 tons) of food residue daily, is inexpensive to run (it costs about $3 a day), quiet and odor-free.

“The amount of food residue that ends up in landfills is astonishing,” said Nicholas Smith-Sebasto, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, College of Science and Mathematics at Montclair State, “and 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.”

Members of the environmental consortium, New Jersey Food Waste Recycling Initiative, 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 explained 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 microbes to breakdown the food matter.)

The mixture reaches a temperature of around 130 degrees Fahrenheit for several days, so it is odor-free, he explained. The material is rotated slowly (4 times an hour, 4 times each day) to help break down the food residues, and three days later, it is completely broken down into usable compost that is used to fertilize green spaces on campus.

“I think it’s terrific that a university in New Jersey is experimenting with this type of machine,” said Gray Russell, environmental outreach coordinator for the township of Montclair. He added that he has used aerobic composters in the past and thought the demonstration unit did a good job. “A very nice material came out at the end,” he said.

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.

Smith-Sebasto points out that taking food residue 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.”