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Composting is a process in which organic waste is broken down into a rich, soil additive under controlled conditions. Compost can be used to promote plant growth while also reducing landfill waste by recycling organic materials back into the soil.  Vanderbilt University has two composting operations on campus: the Commons Center Demonstration Site and the Natchez Triangle Leaf Compost Pile.

The Commons Center Demonstration Site

The idea to compost pre-consumer food scraps from Vanderbilt’s dining facilities was initially proposed by Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility (SPEAR), one of Vanderbilt’s undergraduate environmental organizations, in an effort to enhance Vanderbilt’s environmental stewardship and sustainability. SPEAR members and Marcus Kerske, the co-owner of Gardens of Babylon, a Nashville based holistic nursery, design, and landscaping company, created a feasible design to reduce food scrap waste sent to the landfill each week. In the spring of 2007, SPEAR presented a proposal to the University’s administration to implement the student-led composting demonstration and discovery site at the new Commons Center on campus.

The proposal was presented as a continuation of sustainable practices present in the construction of the Commons campus, which was the first conglomeration of buildings on a college campus in the Tennessee to be recognized for environmentally-friendly construction by the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. SPEAR was the driving force behind Vanderbilt University seeking LEED certification for The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt.

In conjunction with Vanderbilt Dining, Campus Planning & Construction, Plant Operations, and Vanderbilt’s Sustainability Coordinator, SPEAR established a fully operating composting discovery site. Each week, SPEAR collects pre-consumer food scraps from the Commons Center dining facility and coffee grounds from Common Grounds to place in the compost demonstration site.  Compost produced at the Commons Center Demonstration Site is utilized for soil enrichment and tree rejuvenation on campus grounds.

View the educational signs at the Commons Center Demonstration Site

The Natchez Trace Leaf Compost Pile

Vanderbilt’s scenic campus contains more than 7,500 trees, which produce a sizable amount of leaves each year. The Plant Operations Grounds Department at Vanderbilt collects leaf and other grounds-keeping waste from campus to compost at an on-site location off of Natchez Trace resulting in about 9,000 cubic feet of compost annually. The mature leaf litter compost is later used to fertilize Vanderbilt grounds. Plant Operations staff regularly turn the leaf waste pile with a front-end loader to allow maximum exposure to oxygen.  Spreading compost helps to revitalize plants and trees in urban settings. Read more about how Vanderbilt uses its abundance of leaves to nurture and protect the trees on campus here.

Why doesn’t Vanderbilt compost food waste on a scale larger than a demonstration site?

Due to Vanderbilt’s location within the metropolitan Nashville area, the university is not permitted to compost food waste, only landscaping waste. Metropolitan Nashville health department regulations require institutions who want to compost food waste to use an industrial compost facility; they are not allowed to compost food waste on a scale larger than “backyard-size.” No such operating, compliant facility is located within a reasonable radius of Nashville at this time.