Identify the Impossible, Then Make it Happen

Interview with Eli Colasante, Sarah Lawrence College compost renegade-ambassador

Last year, 21-year old college student Eli Colasante might have been famous around campus for the funny smell coming from his dorm room and the occasional worms on its floor. These were byproducts of his personal composting operation, which lasted until college authorities put him on housing probation for violating dorm policy. This semester, however, he’s more likely to be recognized for guest speaking in a chemistry class or carting food scraps from the dining hall to his pilot compost project on school grounds.

A rising junior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, Eli is in the process of researching, testing, and advocating for composting capacities at Sarah Lawrence. His goal: dispose of all food waste on campus by turning it into compost. In so doing, says the young environmentalist, the school will both dramatically decrease the fossil fuels used to truck waste to landfills and produce a valuable fertilizer whose sales proceeds could fund the operation of the project.

Eli visited Compost For Brooklyn to see how we manage high volumes of organic waste, and he will be back to give a workshop for the public this fall (keep your eye out for date and time details). Emily Osgood caught up with him over coffee to discuss compost, fossil fuels, and–oh, yes–laundry detergent.

Emily Osgood, Compost for Brooklyn (C4B): What motivated you to begin a composting project at Sarah Lawrence?

Eli Colasante: I knew wanted to do something important for the environment. When I noticed that food scraps from the dining hall were being thrown out with other landfill-bound waste, I started asking people on staff and in the administration why they weren’t being composted. The general sentiment was, “Oh, that’s too hard. It would be impossible to implement composting here.” I didn’t know a lot about compost then, but I saw that this was a chance to make a big impact. It’s like the problem we face now with finding a way to produce enough renewable energy for our needs when fossil fuels are used up–people say it’s impossible. But, we have to do it. The obstacles to composting at Sarah Lawrence seemed insurmountable, so I knew this is what I had to do.

C4B: How did you get the process started?

Eli: First, I started composting in my room and telling everyone about it. It was pretty smelly, but between that and my excitement about it (and it being against the rules), people became aware of it. Then I started advocating for composting on a larger scale.

C4B: How did your roommate react to the dorm-room composting project?  

Eli: Luckily, I didn’t have a roommate. I don’t think someone else would have appreciated the larvae who, having escaped from the compost buckets, were crawling around the floor.

 C4B: Was the college resistant to your ideas?

Eli: Yes, but their reasons for resisting were understandable. Large-scale composting operations take space, time, and resources, and are particularly hard in urban settings–space is limited, and we have neighbors to consider. With 2,000 students, the college would be composting about 50,000 pounds of compost each semester! Depending on the method we use, there could be concern about disrupting the neighborhood with noise, vermin, odors, and so on. That’s why I came to Compost For Brooklyn to see how you approach large-scale urban composting, and why I’m visiting other municipal and academic institutions’ composting projects.

C4B: What do you think is the future of composting at Sarah Lawrence and in other urban areas?

Eli: There are multiple models for doing this, in urban  which is why I am researching and piloting different options. Right now, I am leaning towards a two stage process, which begins with biogas digestion of food scraps. and then feeding the product of that process to worms, who further break it down into nutrient-rich compost. This process will produce energy through the biogas digestion process–energy the college could use. The alternatives are using energy to turn and aerate the compost when it is in a big bin, or use fossil fuels and produce pollution by trucking waste elsewhere.

The two-stage process will also result in a higher quality saleable fertilizer. I not only want to make this project environmentally sustainable (and at least carbon neutral), it has to support itself financially! I was distressed to learn that there have been cuts to existing New York City composting initiatives, such as at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, because the initiatives lost money. This economic reality is something that we have to work on in order for urban composting to be feasible.

 C4B: What are you up to this summer?

Eli: Living in NYC, doing a lot of reading and research on methods of composting, and selling my homemade laundry detergent.

C4B: Homemade laundry detergent?

Eli: It’s something I came across online. Anyone could find the recipe, but some of the ingredients are a bit harder to come by. I make it myself and sell it—it’s biodegradable, safe for the environment, highly concentrated and very powerful. I’ve turned it into a side business.

C4B: Do you have a recipe you’d like to share with our readers?

Eli: Sure. Mix together:

2 cups of soap flakes (if you can’t find them, grind up a bar of soap)

1 cup washing soda (different than baking soda!)

1 cup Borax

Use about one tablespoon per load.

C4B: You know a lot about compost, energy, and the environment! Do you have reading recommendations for the Compost For Brooklyn community?

 Eli: Yes. In addition to enjoying Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, here are a few books I’ve found very informative:

Alexander, Judd H. In Defense of Garbage. Praeger Publishers. Westport, CT: 1993.

Baskin, Yvonne. Underground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World. The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (Scope). Washington: Shearwater Books, 2005.

Lowenfels, Jeff; Lewis, Wayne. Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. Portland: Timber Press, 2010.

C4B: Thanks, and see you this fall for a workshop at Compost for Brooklyn!

You can visit Eli’s website for more on his compost project: http://eliscompost.weebly.com and his blog for much more detail than we had room to write up: www.eliscompost.blogspot.com. If you’re interested in buying laundry detergent, email him: ecolasante@gm.slc.edu

Emily Osgood is Compost For Brooklyn’s communications manager and a master’s student in urban planning at NYU Wagner. She can personally vouch for Eli’s Laundry Detergent, having bought some herself. Feel free to email her with comments, questions, or ideas for future C4B newsletter articles and blog posts: emily.osgood@gmail.com

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About compostforbrooklyn

Compost for Brooklyn empowers city residents to sustainably reduce waste and cultivate healthy urban ecosystems.
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