Users can place food scraps and wastes in the small compost bins. | Sammi Mulhern / Mustang News

What started as a class assignment turned into something much more for Cal Poly students Clayton Hibbert, Makenna Johnstone and Davis Ellington.

The trio were working on a project for their Small Group Communications class (COMS 217), where they were assigned to pick a problem they saw in society and try to address it on campus or in their community.

Their assignment turned into a functioning compost project taking place on a relatively small scale mainly in the Gypsum building of Poly Canyon Village (PCV).

“If we want to save the world in a sense, we have to start doing this [composting],”software engineering junior Johnstone said. “I think education is a really big thing that’s going to make this successful on Cal Poly’s campus. I feel like everyone has the mindset where they want to help and they want to do it [compost], it’s just [about raising] the awareness.”

If organic food goes to the landfill and is mixed in with non-organic material, methane gas is produced, which harms the ozone layer and adds to greenhouse gasses, communications studies junior Hibbert said. When organic food is composted the proper way, it creates carbon and CO2 instead. 

The largest problem the group encountered was the lack of awareness of these facts on campus.

Communications studies sophomore Ellington was part of the zero-waste efforts last year in the South Mountain residence halls. The composting part of the zero-waste stations failed largely because the compost was so contaminated with inorganic waste that the facility receiving the compost had to stop taking it.

Due to this issue, the trio decided to take a different route when introducing students to composting on campus.

“Our approach to the problem, instead of giving everyone in Gypsum a composting bin, we asked them if they wanted one, and if they didn’t want one we didn’t give them one. But a majority of people wanted them, and not only wanted them but were excited to compost,” Hibbert said. “So we think because of their motivation and giving them the means and also giving them a little extra education on what composting is and how to do it specifically is what’s going to make this project more successful than previous ones.”

San Luis Obispo County provided the group with 100 kitchen compost buckets and the students teamed up with groups and individuals on campus who were interested in helping.

One of those people was Cal Poly’s Sustainability Coordinator Kylee Singh.

Singh was excited when the group came to her with their compost project. She said she’s been discouraged over composting efforts on campus, and that seeing students express interest and passion for the issue was refreshing.

When the group went door-to-door in Gypsum to talk to the residents about their composting project, they were met with overwhelming enthusiasm and successfully handed out composting buckets to 50 apartments.

Biology sophomore Shannon Drew is part of Eco Reps, where she connected with the group and helped them distribute the compost bins in PCV.

 “I was really excited too because it seems like a thing that once it gets started, it should never stop, so it’s nice to be part of it launching,” Drew said.

According to the group’s plan, each apartment has a small kitchen composting bin where they can put their food scraps and wastes and then empty it into the larger composting garbage bin down near the building’s dumpsters.

“Although it seems like a little thing … it’s going to make a big difference, and if we can start it on campus then we can move it not only to the county, but also to people’s lives after they leave college. It’s such a small thing and it’s really not that hard [to compost],” Johnstone said.

The group was clearly inspired by their project and wish to spread that to their fellow students at Cal Poly.

“There’s a lot of problems in our world coming to a head and this is one of the ones we can fix really easily, like walking three extra feet and dropping your apple core in the compost,” Ellington said. “It’s one of the simpler fixes we have, but people are refusing to change for.”

Hibbert also said the project had a lasting impression on his life.

“Personally, I think it’s affected us all… I’ve been inspired to compost for the rest of my life,” Hibbert said. “My whole house composts now. I get mad at my roommates when they throw their banana peel in the normal trash-can and not the composting bin.”

Hibbert also said the project has taught him a lot about his daily life.

“I’ve always loved nature and cared about the earth, but I didn’t realize how my daily decisions of choosing which trash can to use could affect the outcome of the environment,” he said.

The entire group agrees that if the students of Cal Poly can be educated on the proper way to compost and to correctly use the zero-waste bins on campus, then they have the ability to create change on a larger level.

“The effect you think is so small, is only small because you’re just one person; but 14,000 pounds [of compost] in 20 days from one tower in one dormitory from one college in Central California is so minute, but that number is so large,” Ellington said.

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