NAU Student-Funded Research Tests the Feasibility of Commercial-Scale Composting

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Research shows that composting is not only far less energy- and water-intensive than conventional methods of waste disposal, but each ton of compost also reduces carbon dioxide by 8/10 ton.

In February 2012, Patrick Pfeifer, a Northern Arizona University (NAU) graduate student in the Sustainable Communities program, began research on economical and environmentally sustainable methods of composting in a high-desert environment.

“Given our region’s nutrient-poor soils, successful home gardening and commercial agriculture in the region is severely limited by soil fertility,” said Pfeifer. “One of the most effective natural soil amendments is composting.” To assess composting needs, Pfeifer and members of Local FARE (Fostering Agricultural Research and Enterprise) in Flagstaff surveyed local backyard gardeners, commercial agriculturists, and landscaping businesses to find if they could generate enough compost to meet their own needs. They could not.

NAU Green Fund provides seed money

Thanks to a grant from NAU’s student-run Green Fund, Pfeifer, various NAU undergraduate students and faculty, and community members created a large-scale composting site on the far south side of campus to test the feasibility of commercial-scale composting. Essentially, this closed-loop system reroutes the waste stream from NAU dining halls and cafes. Students on bicycles (with waste bins in tow) bring organic waste to the composting site. 

 “One of the most effective natural soil amendments is composting.” 

The site currently holds 62,000 pounds of compost. Because a larger surface area to volume ratio allows for the compost to hold heat and moisture more effectively, the site’s piles measure roughly 6 feet tall and 13 feet wide.

NAU Campus Dining will take over next year

Pfeifer is working with NAU’s Energy Services and Sustainability Department and Campus Dining, which will assume responsibility for the project in the coming year. Because composting reduces carbon dioxide and stamps out methane production, the project has the potential to significantly contribute to NAU’s Climate Action Plan and the City of Flagstaff’s greenhouse gas-reduction goals.

Although his research will not conclude until May 2013, Pfeifer’s results may inspire others to use the results from the pilot study to explore the feasibility of a for-profit composting business that would serve NAU and the greater Flagstaff area.  

--Emily Litvack