Students lead Mount Abe compost effort

BRISTOL — The newly christened “Fort Compost” looks solid as a rock.
The 28-foot long, 14-foot wide, 6-foot high steel-and-concrete construction behind Mount Abraham Union High School represents seven years of student initiative, over $12,000 in fundraising and a new generation’s vision of a better, more sustainable world.
From start to finish, the student-led Environmental Action Group planned, built and funded the facility, which was formally opened at a ceremony last Friday.
“It’s been a very long process, and we have certainly hit bumps all along the road, but words cannot describe how excited I am to finally have the facility up and running,” said senior Eliza Kurth, one of the key organizers of this year’s group.
When Environmental Action Group members dumped in the first five-gallon bucket of food waste at Friday’s ceremony, the crowd went wild. As cheers and shouts rent the air, EAG students picked up the next bucket and then the next until all of Friday’s cafeteria leftovers hit the spot. They then dumped in additional buckets of sawdust and horse manure, to reach the one bucket of food waste to five buckets of sawdust and manure ratio the group had worked out would be most effective.
As part of the ceremony, several students addressed the crowd, as did VIP guest Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. Bray was especially impressed with the way that the compost facility closes the loop for the Mount Abe community: Once that food waste turns into compost, it can be put back onto the Mount Abe garden, which grows about 600 pounds of vegetables annually for the school cafeteria. And the cycle repeats.
“This is one of those areas where kids are leading their parents. We’ve seen it in some energy issues, and we’re seeing it in composting,” said Bray.
Led by the Environmental Action Group, MAUHS students, staff and teachers first began separating food waste for composting during the 2008-2009 school year. That same year, students began to dream of building a composting facility on site. Since then, students in the EAG have organized a daily rotation of community members who picked up the lunch scraps and took them off site for composting in back yards and on small farms around the five towns.
At first, students reported, composting wasn’t cool, but with the group’s efforts the culture of composting has taken hold, and each year the group has expanded its efforts and yielded better results. During the 2011-2012 school year, the Environmental Action Group began to investigate designs for a composting facility capable of handling all the school’s food waste and to compare existing compost operations at other Vermont high schools, including Montpelier, Harwood Union and Vergennes. The studies revealed one big problem in compost gone wrong: rats. The wily tenacity of rodents hell bent on munching garbage sold the Mount Abe students on scrapping a wooden design in favor of a concrete structure with welded steel doors.
But this kind of design — closer to something that could serve a small municipality rather than your humble backyard compost pile — was going to cost big bucks. So during the 2013–2014 school year, students in the Environmental Action Group began writing grants. In all, students won grants from the Vermont Community Foundation, the Neat Repeats Resale Shop and the Addison County Solid Waste Management District to the tune of $9,000. Students raised additional funds through an Indiegogo online fundraiser, which together with individual donations brought the total raised to $12,792.52.
The group then dove into the next phase, which was gaining approval for the project within the various school bureaucracies. Finally construction began.
“The Mount Abraham EAG members over the past seven years have learned so much — how to talk to professionals and community members they do not know, how to write grants, how to work through bureaucracies, how to be persistent and persevere and to creatively think on their feet,” said EAG faculty adviser Caroline Camara, an innovation coach at ANeSU.
“The problem solving involved with this project has been unbelievable. They’ve sustained a commitment to this project over seven years, from the inception of the idea, passing it on from one group of students to the next, to getting it to an operational state. They’ve learned that it takes many community stakeholders coming together, planning, designing and communicating, to pull off this kind of project. It’s been inspirational, messy and such a joy to watch unfold, even during the frustrating and difficult days.”
The group’s efforts passed a major milestone in the fall of 2014 when Laurie Concrete Construction of Bristol poured the main structure: a giant concrete box solid enough to be the foundation of a small house. It was comprised of eight separate bins, four on each side, separated by concrete stairs leading, now, to a wooden platform down the middle. Once the main concrete structure was in place, ANeSU facilities director Alden Harwood fabricated and installed the heavy steel doors that seal off or allow outside access to each bin along the outer perimeter.
With some initial help from Harwood, welding students put together the steel covers that close the bins and allow access on the top. The steel covers are so heavy that they are being outfitted with hydraulic lifts, so that one person will be able to easily open them up and dump in food scraps, sawdust and manure.
“They got a lot of energy, these kids do, and a lot of good ideas,” said Harwood. “To get their ideas and take the teachable moments where you can, it just makes my job more fun. It’s invigorating.”
Truly a community recycling effort, right now the Mount Abe composting facility’s sawdust supply comes from Stark Mountain Woodworking in New Haven and the manure comes from local stables.
The student-led initiative puts Mount Abe way ahead of the curve in terms of the composting benchmarks in the Act 148 Universal Recycling Law, which mandates that no food waste be dumped in landfills by 2020.
The EAG’s annual Trash on the Lawn Day event — which builds composting and recycling awareness by literally dumping the trash on the school’s lawn, sorting it and then analyzing the data — also shows how effective the students’ efforts have been. Looking at cafeteria waste alone, when composting first began in 2008 the cafeteria produced about nine bags of garbage a day. Now, thanks to composting and better recycling, it produces about three bags a day, said Camara. Another measure of progress, said Camara, is how the EAG’s quarterly Clean Plate and Star Composter awards are now highly coveted.
Yet another impressive outcome of the EAG’s campaign for compost is in the lives of the student participants. Camara noted that many of the students who founded the Environmental Action Group in 2008 and kicked off efforts to get the school composting and building the compost facility are now in college studying environmental science and policymaking.
“This is a great example of when students own an idea it is messy through the learning but it creates a beautiful thing,” said Camara. “This whole process — talk about learning, this is seven years of learning — it’s been worth its weight in … compost!”
Standing on the newly built wooden platform, compost bucket in hand, senior Hannah Funk, another key organizer in the student group, took a moment to reflect on the group’s phenomenal accomplishment.
“It feels like the highlight of my whole senior year, my whole high school career,” said Funk. “I joined environmental club when I was in ninth grade, and it was just barely getting going. We were just starting to sort trash. Now it’s the cultural shift that I think is so powerful.
“You saw how many kids were out here who were actually excited about this, but when we started no one even wanted to compost. It was an uncool thing to do. This project has given me such a personal purpose during my high school career, and it’s been a uniting force in our school. It’s really brought us together.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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