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Rocket composter gives college’s recycling a boost

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Portland Community College is proving that composting and creating an effective closed loop recycling system isn’t rocket science.

Last week, the college’s Rock Creek Campus (17705 N.W. Springville Road) officially joined a select few institutions of higher learning in the United States in improving its sustainability by unveiling its new rocket composter. The rocket, which will help recycle post-consumer waste, is the fourth of its kind in the United States, is the only one west of the Mississippi River and the lone rocket composter in the country being used for post-consumer waste like plastic and paper service ware.

The rocket composter, made in the United Kingdom, was on display at the Rock Creek Campus' Building 3 on Oct. 1.

“We really walk the talk,” said Rock Creek President David Rule. “People talk about sustainability, but PCC, and Rock Creek in particular, are really doing it.  Who else is doing this? It’s the community colleges and PCC in Portland that are stepping out and being entrepreneurial by buying something and testing it.”

It was entirely a student-driven process to research and acquire the rocket composter. Last year, a district council of students were given the opportunity to determine where money from the college’s increased enrollment (PCC has had 13 consecutive terms of enrollment growth) could be used to improve the college’s infrastructure. As a result, this pilot project will, if successful, lead to the purchase of additional rocket composters at all of PCC’s campuses, making the college the only institution in the nation to have that many.

“A lot of us have been looking forward to this day for quite awhile,” said Jeff Christian, student sustainability volunteer. “It speeds the process up by removing a lot of the elements that would slow down or interrupt the composting process. It represents technology that is underrepresented and fairly new in the United States.”

In essence, the rocket composter is a self-contained, continuous-cycle composting unit, Christian said. It allows daily feeding of service ware and the harvest of compost. To speed up the process, it regulates water, temperature and humidity to facilitate four stages of the breakdown of the compost.

The Rock Creek Campus already has an award-winning loop system featuring red worms that break down leftover food scraps. But as Christian said, the 40,000 worms in the campus composting bins have their limitation and cannot break down plates. Before the rocket composter, the campus had to send all of its post consumer waste to the local landfill.

Erin Stanforth (right), sustainable practices coordinator for PCC, shows off the rocket to staff and faculty at its unveiling ceremony.

“The rocket represents a substantial investment by the students of Portland Community College to sustainable technology and waste reduction,” said Erin Stanforth, PCC Sustainable Practices Coordinator. “The rocket will allow PCC to compost a significantly greater amount of material inedible by the worms.”

As a benefit to student learning, the rocket will be housed in a room in Building 3. The composter, which is a long metal cylinder, will have a data log computer on it to monitor real time sampling of conditions inside it for use in biology, environmental science, chemistry and landscape technology classes to further their research.

Gerardo Soto, Managing Director of NATH Sustainable Solutions, pieced together the rocket by hand for the PCC students and helped them get the system going. Its first compost will be collected during the Rock Creek Harvest Festival on Saturday, Oct. 23. Soto said PCC is way ahead of the curve on recycling on campus and expects the rocket to be a huge component in its loop system.

“The rocket composter is manufactured in the U.K. where 18 percent of the universities use one,” Soto said. “It’s very normal over there. Not every body in the U.S. does recycling like they do at PCC. In many other parts of the country, it’s not very common. PCC is really leading in the U.S.”

By creating four stages of microbial decomposition, the rocket is able to compost faster and in greater volume than other technologies. It will fit well into the Rock Creek Campus’s loop system where students grow produce in the campus’ learning garden for use in cafeteria and then recycling pre-consumer food waste using a composting worm bin. The loop is completed, or closed off, by using the compost produced by the worms to fertilize the garden.

“We feed the rocket every single day and the compost moves through the rocket and comes out into a bag at the end,” Soto said. “It’s very simple. It isn’t rocket science.”

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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