Most people might not appreciate a stack of dead flowers or mysterious barrels of hay showing up in their office, but for campus composter John Darling, it happens everyday.

Most people might not appreciate a stack of dead flowers or mysterious barrels of hay showing up in their office, but for campus composter John Darling, it happens everyday.

Starting as a volunteer “puttering around” about 10 years ago, Darling has turned UTA’s compost pile into a production line that supplies UTA with all the soil it needs. Darling said he’s collected 46 tons of food waste over the period of five years from UTA kitchens alone.

“There’s a general upward trend as people change, as people get more used to it and as people become more serious about collecting,” he said. “Because I rely on them as people to get more serious about saving stuff.”

Darling, who works part time, needs help. The university demands for compost may grow with the addition of a community garden, which received funding approval in late October from Arlington City Council. Grounds maintenance supervisor Jan Hergert is looking at résumés to find Darling a work-study student to help with compost production.

What can I compost?

- All organic material.

- Fallen leaves, cut grass and trimmings from trees or shrubs.

- Oil from an oil spill and the nitrogen in TNT can also be composted.

- Food waste like banana peels, coffee grounds, nut shells or tea leaves can all be used for compost.

Animal fat and salt do not compost.

Recently, the compost pile received an upgrade from the plumbing department. The department added four drains so rain water can flow out instead of creating a thick layer of mud at the compost site, making the machinery nearly impossible to move, Hergert said.

Darling started the compost pile in 2004 with the help of the Arlington Conservation Council. About two years later, the university received a grant from the city for more than $200,000, Facilities Management director Larry Harrison said.

The grant paid for a Bobcat Skid Loader and an in-vessel rotary compost unit, which can rotate the compost once every 24 hours. Later, a screen was purchased by the Environmental Health and Safety office, which originally oversaw the compost pile until about a year ago. The screen is a machine used to sift out all the larger debris so compost can be taken to various campus locations.

Trimmings, fallen leaves, grass clippings and food waste from on and off campus go to the compost pile. Darling maintains the compost through a system of smaller piles which he rotates on a regular basis, adding water with leaves or food waste. Then, large debris is sifted out, and the soil is sent to the campus for plants.

The department is looking for funding from the Sustainability Office to add a cement platform below the sifter to make it easier to manage the compost, Harrison said.

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1. Buckets

Darling keeps track of how many pounds of food he gets from each location. Food waste comes from several locations besides the campus. Arlington Memorial Hospital gives more than 50 pounds on a regular basis and two nearby restaurants, Mi Tierra’s and the Tin Cup, give between 10 and 30 pounds. The Starbucks on Cooper Street also fluctuates between one and several buckets of coffee grounds, while the Starbucks in the University Center is approximately 50 pounds a day.

2. Wood chipper

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Pruning from trees and shrubs from around the campus are put into a wood chipper before being added to a compost pile.

3. In-Vessel

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Though composting dates back before Biblical times, the in-vessel compost unit does exactly the same thing as a compost pile, Darling said. Inside a corn oil plastic compostable Biobag, kitchen waste, leaves and water are added to the machine that can automatically rotate once every 24 hours.

4. Skid Loader

Purchased with the grant that helped start the compost pile, the skid loader is used to turn the compost pile. If the pile is not turned on a regular basis the air will escape, release methane and contribute to global warming.

5. One to two weeks

It can take a couple of weeks to build up a pile. Each pile is equal parts kitchen waste — banana peels and coffee grounds — leaves, grass or other nitrogen-rich plants. Every year the university scalps the grass for winter rye. About a week ago, Darling received eight to nine hundred bags of grass.

6. Two weeks to six months

Darling said compost needs exactly what we need: a balanced diet, carbon and nitrogen to make carbohydrates and proteins, water and air. Trillions of fungi and bacteria break down the organic material. Then insects and other organisms eat the fungi and bacteria creating a food web in the compost pile.

7. Six months to a year

It takes about four to six months for the organic material to decompose into a healthy pile of soil, though he does have a pile that’s about a year old. Darling said it can be done in six to eight weeks, but measures his success by the amount of soil the grounds keepers need. Within the last year, it has become so productive that UTA no longer purchases soil from outside sources.

8. Screen

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In the last step of the process, Darling uses the skid loader to move the compost pile into the screen. The machine sifts out all the larger pieces of sticks and other debris so it can be taken to various locations of the campus. The university is working to get a cement platform for the screen, which is sinking into the mud.

9. Finished Pile

Once a pile has decomposed and been screened, grounds keepers use it in various parts of the campus to fertilize the plant life, completing the cycle.

10. Flags

Darling marks each pile with a numbered flag to remind him when he started building the pile and when he finished building it. He keeps track on a clip board of each piles progress with a daily log tracking when he added leaves, when he turned it, etc.

11. Drain

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New drains were recently added to the compost area. After a heavy rain the land would hold water and turn swampy. Soil from the College Park Center site is added to grade the earth so water moves towards the new drains.

Outer edge of a compost pile — (not illustrated)

The smell of the compost attracts feral cats so a thick outer layer of leaves or hay is laid down to keep them from tearing into the compost.

Inner part compost pile — (not illustrated)

The inside of the compost pile is about 140 degrees Fahrenheit because the microorganisms are metabolizing and releasing heat. Darling checks the temperature to see how healthy the pile is. When it gets to about 100 degrees, he knows it requires his attention.

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