Composting at Chautauqua a constant endeavor for grounds department

Chris Majewski considers himself lucky. Rather than sit indoors at a desk all day, the grounds supervisor and head of heavy equipment at Chautauqua Institution has the privilege of handling dying, rotting and decomposing organic material during his workdays.

The grounds department operates a composting facility on nearby Potter Road, where it collects leaves, disposable plants and other organic matter, allowing it to biodegrade over time. It is then used as compost and added to the soil throughout the grounds.

Additionally, the department picks up organic matter from Chautauquans’ personal compost bags every day from two bin locations — at the Farmers Market and at Overlook Condos — and brings that material to its compost facility.

Chautauquans advocated for this pick-up service five or six years ago as a way to compost their leftover fruits, vegetables, egg shells and other biodegradable food items, Majewski said.

“Residents are really into their recycling,” he said.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations describes composting as a natural process whereby aerobic microorganisms break down organic matter, producing humus, a dark, nutrient-rich soil — not to be confused with the delectable chickpea-based dip. The process serves as an environmentally responsible way to dispose of unwanted organics, as the material is recycled into soil rather than disposed of in a landfill or incinerated.

The Institution has been composting leaves and organic material at its 100-acre property on Potter Road for decades — the practice was already in place when Majewski started working here 18 years ago, he said.

Moreover, the composting process does not end when the season ends. In the fall, Majewski and others at the grounds department vacuum pounds and pounds of falling leaves, primarily because large piles of leaves are a fire hazard.

“We pick it all up over a period of two months or whatever it takes us,” he said. “It’s usually right around Thanksgiving when the snow is starting to fall that we’re just finishing up. We take it all up to Potter Road, stack it and start rotating it over.”

“Rotating” refers to moving the material around using a payloader so that all of it gets exposed to oxygen. He said it takes three to five years for a pile of organic material to biodegrade into usable soil, which then provides important nutrients for the gardens.

“Residents are happy we’re doing it, plus people are excited when they find out it’s being reused and that we don’t just throw everything away,” Majewski said.

Betsy Burgeson, supervisor of gardens and landscapes, said she hopes her department and the grounds department can increase the number of bins around the Institution to make composting more accessible for Chautauquans. The department already provides biodegradable bags for residents interested in composting, and the compost facility receives approximately one small garbage bag’s worth of personal compost a day from Chautauquans’ kitchens, she said.

“We’re trying to have it so that more people are able to use it and not feel like they have to drag this leaking bio bag across the Institution in order to get it to the bin sites,” Burgeson said.

The compost facility itself has become a home for wildlife as well, which feed on the leftover food and other materials that are composted.

The grounds department live traps raccoons, woodchucks and other wild animals and sets them free on the property, Majewski said.

“They’re just a nuisance down here, and we don’t injure them,” he said.

Before the Institution owned a compost facility, Majewski said, the grounds department would rake all the leaves on the grounds every year and then burn them. Burning leaves is a potentially dangerous process that releases large concentrations of air pollutants such as dust, soot and carbon monoxide.

Today, the grounds crew is committed to minimizing waste, Majewski said. Composting is an ideal way to reduce waste production, and all it requires is exposing organic material to air. From there, it’s a waiting game.

“It looks a mess, but there’s a method to it,” he said.