Worm Front

One student's crusade to bring composting to Sarah Lawrence

by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

A few days after Spring Break of sophomore year, Eli Colasante ’13 was walking to his room in Slonim Woods when he heard firefighters bellowing. A trail of prospective students on an admission tour shuffled by, looking bewildered as the fire alarm wailed. Colasante wasn’t concerned. The errant fire alarm is nothing new on campus, and he was probably engrossed in thoughts of the Red Wigglers and decaying food scraps he kept in a bin in his room. Composting had absorbed most of his attention for quite some time.

Then his cell phone started ringing. It was Larry Hoffman, the assistant vice president of public safety, who informed Colasante that the firefighters were actually in his room. His compost had started to ferment, and the noxious gases it emitted had set off the alarm. Hoffman told Colasante to remove the bin and its accompanying worm population immediately.

Instead, Colasante waved merrily at the prospective students, informed them that he was a keen composter, and invited them to come visit the plastic bins he’d set up in his room. He didn’t intend to follow Hoffman’s instructions. He decided to break the rules because from his perspective, the rules needed to change.

A few days later, five minutes before class, Colasante received an e-mail notifying him that his room would be inspected shortly, and his compost and worms would be removed if he hadn’t already disposed of them. He hadn’t, of course. He loped over to Kober parking lot to retrieve his banana-yellow, fuel-efficient Mini Cooper, snagged the two 18-gallon containers holding his beloved Red Wigglers, put
the bins in the trunk of his car, and arrived at class just a few minutes late.

But it was a temporary solution at best. The Office of Student Affairs placed Colasante on housing probation, which meant he wouldn’t be allowed to live on campus over the summer as planned. For two and a half years, he had been trying to start a composting program at the College. Now he would have to commute from Manhattan in order to keep it up. While he knew the administrators were simply doing their jobs, the punishment felt like a dismissal of all his work.

Plus he still didn’t know what he was going to do with his worms.

He began surreptitiously composting in his room with scraps he pulled from the garbage.

Colasante grew up in Gainesville, Florida, on 104 acres of lush forest. His mother was a vegetarian ex-hippie and family physician who raised four boys on her own, and she taught him how to solve complex problems using simple solutions. “Her patients would complain about being overweight or having diabetes, and would expect her to prescribe a pill that could magically fix all of it,” he says. Their problems were complicated, but the solutions were not: quit smoking and drinking soda, exercise, and eat more vegetables.

The problem Colasante observed when he arrived at Sarah Lawrence was how much food was being thrown away.

Food makes up about a third of America’s waste stream; even though it’s biodegradable, discarded items can end up sitting unchanged for decades. In one of Colasante’s many conference projects on composting and soil health, he estimated SLC’s food waste at a hundred tons per year. It seemed like a problem with a simple solution: take the refuse and make it into a resource.

In composting, microorganisms—or, in Colasante’s case, worms—feast on organic matter, breaking it down into a rich fertilizer that can be potent enough to cure dying plants. He says the process is more like cooking than science, though, and missteps can birth a number of mysterious smells and undesirable creatures (some with worrisome names, such as Black Soldier larvae). But at heart, composting is a fairly undemanding process: let the materials sit, stir occasionally, and wait for nature to do its thing.

Colasante started talking about composting with Sarah Lawrence staff. Michael Rengers ’78, then director of operations and facilities, told him that a number of students had attempted to compost at the College before, but none had succeeded. The main reason, Rengers said, was that in the face of skepticism and a dearth of resources, they had given up. (Either that, or they had no successors after graduation.) Colasante realized that his success would depend on a dogged refusal to quit.

“I would not be surprised if Eli one day becomes the Bill Gates of composting."

Colasante didn’t gain much traction at first, and he decided to take a year off and go to China, where he got a job teaching English and working on an organic farm. He says he decided on China mainly because he didn’t know anything about it. “One time, I tried to say, ‘I want to wash my clothes,’ and accidentally said, ‘I want to wash your wife,’” he recalls. But it took him only a few months to learn how to speak Mandarin fluently. When he wasn’t teaching, he took long bike trips into the rural countryside, where he talked to people in villages and asked questions about their mud-brick homes and greenhouses. The windows of their greenhouses all faced south, and Colasante used them as a compass.

Back at Sarah Lawrence for his sophomore year, he sent scores of e-mails to faculty, trustees, administrators, and alumni, trying to garner support for his vision. “Composting at SLC is a move toward sustainability in the face of an unpredictable future,” he would say. “We make a lot of food scraps that cost money to transport out. In the future, who knows what the price will be of oil or disposing of food, or of getting fertilizer or peat moss? This is an investment in the future so we can rely on local resources.” He also began surreptitiously composting in his room with scraps he pulled from the garbage while working for AVI Fresh in Bates. He added worms that he’d transported from Florida in a bucket full of dirt. Worms can devour up to half their body weight in food scraps daily, and they excrete “black gold”—highly concentrated, nutrient-dense fertilizer.

Vicki Ford and Eli Colasante examine a bucket of top-notch compost at FinalPitch. Photo by Dana MaxsonAdministrators Colasante met with explained that Sarah Lawrence didn’t have the space or the resources to maintain a composting facility. Only one person responded (favorably, at least) to his many e-mails: Trustee Vicki Ford ’60 MSEd ’87, who asked to see his business plan. Colasante quickly obliged, and Ford offered him a small grant. He requested a loan instead, insisting that he wanted to make his operation profitable and pay her back. With the money he received, he built a larger composting bin, which looks like a white refrigerator turned on its side, in Ford’s yard in Bronxville. For over a year, Colasante and some of his friends visited her house every week to add to and tend the bin.

Then the fire alarm incident happened. Colasante’s worms did not fare well in the back of his car, and he was devastated when they perished, shriveled by the heat of summer. But he made the most of his housing probation by visiting composting facilities at colleges and community gardens around the region, with the help of a Seidelman Grant for Activism Work from SLC. When he returned to campus for his junior year, he had new ideas about how to refine his approach. The first step was to get other students involved and create an official compost club sanctioned by the Sarah Lawrence Activities Council. Colasante also negotiated with administrators to get his bin out of Vicki Ford’s yard and onto campus. In December 2011, he was allowed to move the bin to the lawn of Warren Green, the ecologically oriented student residence.

“I would not be surprised if Eli one day becomes the Bill Gates of composting,” says Larry Hoffman, who first encountered Colasante when he visited the Student Life Committee and proposed selling clothes-drying racks to save energy in campus residences—a project that Hoffman helped him implement. “He has to be one of the staunchest supporters of the environment we have had at the College in my 14 years here. He always found ways around the accepted way of doing things, and just won’t take no for an answer.”

Because the operations staff can’t directly monitor Colasante’s process, his compost can’t be used on campus grounds. But he now runs a business, Eli’s Worm Compost (eliscompost.net), packaging his compost in salvaged bags from a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and buckets rescued from Dumpsters. Though his profits are slim, he has applied for a business license, and he pays taxes. This spring, he participated in SLCeeds, an entrepreneurship program that launched on campus in December 2012. He presented his business plan at PitchFest in February and FinalPitch in May, during which he carried a bucket of compost onto the stage and attempted to sell it to the judges.

Vicki Ford watched Colasante graduate in the spring, and she returned all his loan payments as a graduation gift and forgave him the difference. This summer he went back to China on a Meredith Fonda Russell grant—to study composting facilities, of course. Most people he talks to about his post-graduation plans assume he will abandon composting at Sarah Lawrence, but he doesn’t consider that an option. “The reason we don’t already have a composting facility is because there isn’t someone willing to remain working on it long enough, other than me,” Colasante says with a modest shrug. “In other words, no one is willing to endure every setback, every mistake, every failure—and endure for however much time it takes to guarantee success is the one and only option.” His vision is a fully realized, self-supporting composting facility that recycles all food waste at the College. It’s an ambitious dream, and there are more obstacles to contend with before it could become reality. But somehow that dream doesn’t seem quite as implausible as it once did.


Eli Colasante gives a tour of his composting operation. Watch video»

Katharine Reece MFA ’12 grew up on a llama farm in northwest Montana, where she did her best to avoid the worms her brother used for the dual purposes of fishing and tormenting her.