What began as a love for food and home gardening has transformed into a mission to revolutionize the way the West Chester borough disposes of their food. Denise Polk, a communication studies professor at West Chester University, set out to be certified as a master composter, and turned her six hour community service requirement into a long term project with hopes to improve the community’s environmental impact.
Composting is just the first step in this project. Polk’s research shows that food scraps taken to landfills produce methane dioxide, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Composting these food scraps could seriously diminish these emissions, not to mention the fact that composting would reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, creating better soil and decreasing amounts of harmful runoff.
A few students around campus were questioned about their background knowledge on composting and its benefits. Of the five students interviewed, only one, Cierra Peterlin, a nutrition major, identified food waste as a contributor to greenhouse gases. The other responses included carbon dioxide, exhaust from cars and factory pollution (responses from Kierra Maynard, athletic training major; Trey Clausen, criminal justice major; and Katie Weissman, marketing major). The students interviewed had a vague idea of what composting was; this included responses along the lines of “putting food back into the ground for soil,” and “a trash thing.”
Tyler Marks, a criminal justice major, identified sludge composting as a type of commercial composting, while the others said they had never heard of any programs along those lines. Commercial composting is the large scale diversion of food, similar to what Polk was aiming for in her project. Commercial composting uses heat to make the process quicker and can include more diverse materials along with larger accumulations of waste.
Polk and her team’s dedication to the cause has taken them leaps and bounds from what was expected of the six hour project, which turned into years’ worth of work. Her pilot study launched in 2014 upon receiving a grant offered by the Environmental Protection Agency, and due to the cooperation of the West Chester Public Works department it has increased from a six-month project to another year-long commitment in 2016. The pilot run included three local restaurants of small, medium and large scale, and participation of the Public Works Department. The project collected over forty-four tons of materials to be composted. Polk needed more data that supported their success and, of course, the sustainability of the project. The 2016 Pilot included ten local businesses, not only restaurants this time around, which would be billed $50 per month to help cover necessary costs. The outcome of this project was over 360 tons of diverted food scraps. Following this run, Polk and her teams were recognized in a ceremony by the Environmental Protection Agency for their success.
The project will not stop here. Polk plans to continue her works up the food recovery hierarchy. Her next steps include taking leftover food from local restaurants and bringing them to people who are food insecure. Being food insecure is defined by the USDA as someone who, “[reports of having] reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet.”
This project requires more volunteers, and Polk is looking for students. Anyone can volunteer, and anyone interested in doing so can contact her at email@example.com to volunteer or get more information. Participation would entail advocating for the project at the doors of restaurants and being a part of a delivery team. Polk’s new project has already taken some action, and on Welcome Back to WCU day, with cooperation from Aramark food services, 80 pounds of food were taken to Safe Harbor. Safe Harbor is one of the organizations participating in Polk’s new mission, along with the local chapter of the Salvation Army.
There is still an opportunity to hear about Polk’s research and project. On Nov. 10, she’ll be presenting a TEDx talk on her mission, its success and future plans.
This seminar was one of many presented by the Office of Sustainability here at the university. Their upcoming seminars include a presentation by Professor Megan Heckert titled “Green Infrastructure for Storm Water Management: Considerations for Equitable Planning, and Food Insecurity in College Students” presented by nutrition professors Lynn Monahan and Mary Beth Gilboy. Each installment to the research seminars brings together more topics of sustainability and sheds new light on issues and resolutions. The lectures are refreshing and inspire new thoughts about topics that might not be brought up in everyday classes.
To leave off, Jessica Hillman, an attendee of the seminar, reacted in a way the can encompass the presentation as a whole, “I thought the project was really interesting and really beneficial to the environment, and I think they should definitely make it more of a prominent [aspect of the community] that has to occur because it could really help with the environment of West Chester.”
Giana Reno is a first-year student majoring in communication studies. She can be reached at GR890947@wcupa.edu.