Using coffee grounds and raw fruit and vegetable trimmings, CSUSM recently sprouted the idea to develop a low-maintenance compost system on a remote hill of the 304-arce campus, diverting waste from landfills to instead provide nutrient-rich soil for landscaping.

Composting, which has gained strong public interest over the last decade, is the process of decomposing organic, plant matter into a soil mixture. The relatively new program for the University began as the brainchild of Sustainability Director Ed Johnson after discussing waste diversion efforts with nearby RecycleMania colleges. Some of the campuses he spoke with were contracting with external businesses to compost their raw produce.

Rather than pay a company to compost the organic waste produced at Cal State San Marcos, Johnson looked at one of the University’s most sizeable assets – its land – and thought, why not compost on campus? That sentiment was quickly echoed by Grounds Specialist Isidro "Sid" Alvarez, who developed the system with Johnson and now manages the onsite compost near the edge of the University’s property.

Although still in its early stages, each week approximately 400 pounds of biodegradable waste collected from the Dome, Starbucks, and Campus Coffee is added to the compost pile, which now weighs an estimated two and a half tons. The assortment of coffee grinds, vegetable trimmings, fruit rinds, and small pieces of paper like coffee filters is mixed with grass clippings to create a perfect balance of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. The mixture is then turned weekly, using a skid loader, to aerate the compost and aid the decomposition process.

Exposed to the natural elements, within a week the raw food becomes nearly unrecognizable. Nature goes to work as aerobic bacteria begin breaking down the organic matter and producing heat, carbon dioxide and plant-nourishing nitrites. At its core, the natural chemical decomposition process can produce up to 135 degrees of heat. The final step in the process combines the compost mixture with existing soil, which can then be used for gardens, landscaping, horticulture, and agriculture. From the Dome to the planter-bed, the process takes approximately six months to complete.

According to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, yard trimmings and food residuals together constitute 26 percent of the annual public solid waste in America.

“Every piece of waste that we can keep from entering our landfill is an environmental victory,” said Carl Hanson, coordinator of Recycling and Sustainability at CSUSM.

In addition to conserving valuable landfill space, composts save money. Waste management companies charge trash disposal services based on the volume of trash hauled away. By reducing the total waste, expenses are averted, which can translate into sizeable savings over a period of time. Beyond its low-maintenance, minimal waste, and bottom-line benefits, composts also improve soil structure, texture, and aeration and increase the soil’s water-holding capacity.

“Composting is just one of the cost-effective and cost-saving steps we’re taking to divert waste,” Hanson added. “We want to continue to strive as a campus to get as close to a zero-waste university as possible.”

“Every piece of waste that we can keep from entering our landfill is an environmental victory,” said Carl Hanson, coordinator of Recycling and Sustainability at CSUSM.