When general engineering junior McKinnley Workman realized Cal Poly lacked a reasonable composting system, she took matters into her own hands.
Workman is one of the founders of Cal Poly Composters, a group that aims to make it easier for students living on campus to sustainably remove their waste. The system is rather hands-off — residents collect compost for themselves, and once a week “Compost Masters” meet them at one of two pick-up locations on campus to take the compost to local gardens. Pick-ups occur at 11 a.m. on Saturdays.
Workman said the group started with her own idea. Being a transfer student, she said she was surprised upon arrival at Cal Poly that there was no composting system integrated in campus living.
“I grew up in a place where there was always a place to compost, so it was really kind of obscure to me that it was really difficult for anybody to compost that lives on campus,” Workman said. “Students were obviously expressing a need for it.”
Workman tried taking her idea to administration and several already established clubs, but a large-scale composting operation is hard to put into action, so she decided to start small by creating a Facebook group for people to get involved. The Facebook group has now grown to 49 members.
“The day after the Facebook group came up there was about 36 people, and so I think it’s just a matter of letting people know how easy it is for them to do now,” Workman said.
Workman had quite a job figuring out logistics for a reasonable system, particularly without violating any university policies or involving administration at all, she said. She eventually decided on weekly collections at two specific meeting spots on campus — one at Poly Canyon Village and one at Cerro Vista Apartments. These spots were not chosen simply for convenience, but because the group wanted to attract people who were more likely to be cooking their own food and therefore creating more compostable waste.
“I feel like people in PCV and Cerro Vista aren’t going to campus dining,” said crop science junior William Medford, who got involved with the movement through Workman herself. “We get a lot of trash, and it’s nice to be able to compost a lot of it.”
After pick-up, the compost is brought to one of a few gardens where it is put to use as fertilizer. These include the various off-campus student gardens, but Workman highlighted one garden in particular.
“We bike (the compost) down to a local community garden,” Workman said. “There’s a really sweet lady there named Rosemary. She knows so much and she’s willing to educate people about compost, about gardening, about anything.”
Rosemary Wilvert, who owns and cares for the garden, couldn’t be happier to work with Cal Poly Composters.
“We have 26 fruit and nut trees and a large vegetable garden, so we’re like a small farm here but it’s just on a city lot,” Wilvert said. “We’re putting back into the earth what we’ve taken out in growing things.”
The compost is not used right away, but must over time become ready to be used as fertilizer. Wilvert said they allow this through the design of their compost bin.
“We have a two-chamber bin,” Wilvert said.
She explained that the new compost goes in one side, and that which is more broken down comes out to be used in the garden.
“We take it out twice a year and fertilize the garden,” Wilvert said.
The Composters’ first pick-up was Saturday, and Workman said it went as well as she could have hoped.
“We didn’t fill up our wagon completely, so we need more people, but it went really well,” Workman said. “There were two that came (to drop off) and my bucket too, so we were about one-third of the way full.”
Workman also said that although she knows not all people will choose to compost, it should not be for lack of convenience.
“It doesn’t smell and it’s not a pain as long as you take it out every week,” Workman said. “You should do it correctly, you shouldn’t put a ton of oils, cheese and butter in. You have to find the right balance.”
Though the operation is very small-scale now, Workman hopes with time, more people will see the benefits of composting.
“We’re trying to engineer a better future for ourselves and for our progeny, and it’s really important that we recognize that we need to make our systems more close-looped so that we can create a more sustainable future,” she said.
As Medford put it, composting follows the same concept as recycling.
“It’s basically turning your trash into, eventually, more food,” he said.