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Compost Facility

Windrow turner at the Cornell compost facility

Cornell’s compost facility, operated by Farm Services, turns 4,000 tons of organic waste annually into high quality compost. Instead of trucking the waste to a landfill, it is composted at a location just one mile from campus. Composting reduces the amount of waste generated at the University, and lessens the need for energy-intensive transportation. Finished compost provides a valuable resource for local agricultural and landscape plantings.

Delivering compostables from diverse Cornell waste streams to the compost facilityFrom Waste to Compost

Farm Services collects and weighs campus compostables each weekday, and transports these materials to the four-acre composting facility. The compost facility began operations in 1992, and was designed with help from the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering.

The collected materials, generated annually by over 60 Cornell waste streams, include:

  • 2,700 tons of animal bedding and manure from research and teaching facilities
  • 300 tons of plant debris from campus greenhouses, orchards and farms
  • 800 tons of food scraps and organic kitchen waste from Cornell dining halls and small eateries
  • Other waste streams, such as building-specific compost collection programs and special events

The waste is piled in sequential long heaps, called windrows. Each windrow is about seven feet tall and the length of a football field. The windrows are turned weekly from April through November. The consistent aeration and mixing of the organic materials speed the composting process and help to regulate moisture levels. Microbes feed on the decomposing waste, which heats the piles internally to 120-160⁰F during the process. These high temperatures aid in the destruction of pathogenic organisms and undesirable weed seeds.

Any water and nutrient runoff from the compost facility is captured in two large collection ponds and is either returned to windrows when they are too dry, or pumped to pastureland that serves as a bio-filter to uptake water and nutrients.

It takes about six to nine months to turn organic waste into mature compost. Much of the compost is used by Cornell’s nearby agricultural operations and on campus with landscape projects. A small amount is also sold to the public or donated to local charitable organizations.

Research Opportunities

Research at the compost site includes studies on pre-and-post composting seed viability, in particular seeds from invasive and problematic weeds. Aerobic, heat-generating, composting can degrade and kill seeds from many species of weeds, thereby preventing their potential to germinate wherever finished compost is applied.

Researchers also evaluated how different formulations of compostable products (e.g. cutlery and tableware) degrade over time, and how various blends and amendments can impact compost quality and the speed of decomposition.

In other studies researchers explored the safety and feasibility of composting road-kill and dead livestock, which, if done right, can be the fastest and safest way to dispose of carcasses. The high temperature and microbial activity during composting greatly reduce or eliminate pathogens.

Off-site, researchers studied how compost quality, quantity, timing and application methods influence soil heath and crop growth.

A Model for Other Composting Operations

Compost FacilitiesCornell’s composting facility is the largest such operation in Tompkins County and is frequently visited by researchers and civic waste managers who are interested in the latest composting techniques. Tours and demonstrations of the site help programs and communities around the state visualize and make informed decisions about the composting process. The facility complies with DEC360 regulations and won the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Quality Award in 2009.