April 17, 2008 | General

Cafeteria Composting In Southern Maine

BioCycle April 2008, Vol. 49, No. 4, p. 25
An idealistic fourth-grade student inspires a composting project in her elementary school.
David Ramsay

FOOD waste and milk cartons are being composted in three southern Maine schools, due to a fourth-grade student’s initiative. The project, started at the Marshwood Great Works School in South Berwick, Maine, has sparked a broader interest in recycling in other nearby schools.
It all began when fourth-grader Sophie Towle wrote to her principal, Jerry Burnell, during the summer of 2007 for permission to start a milk carton recycling program. She was not prepared to take no for an answer. Burnell was receptive to “kid-generated” programs and they worked together to kick it off when school started last fall.
Trish Towle, Sophie’s mother, explains that last year when her daughter was in third grade she had been watching the news about global warming and wanted to do something to “save the earth.” At first, Sophie was very upset about climate change and cried a lot. But she then decided to do something about it, and researched practical solutions on the internet.
Sophie chose recycling. ‘My friend Renee [Clavette] and I saw that all the milk cartons at school were being thrown away and we wanted to recycle them,’ says Sophie. She soon discovered that recycling milk cartons was not practical, but if ground up they could be composted with other materials. Sophie started bringing home her milk cartons from school and composting them.
When Sophie first contacted Burnell, she already had the name of a local farmer, John Bartlett, who had a composting business and was interested in adding the milk cartons. When Burnell called the farmer, he readily agreed to compost the food waste from the school’s cafeteria in addition to the milk cartons.
Burnell describes the recycling program and what has happened since the program’s inception. At the end of their meal in the school cafeteria, each child deposits food wastes, milk cartons and trash in separate barrels. “We collect 180 pounds of food waste and about five 40-gallon bags of milk cartons every week,” he says.
At first, Burnell transported the materials to Bartlett’s Farm Services weekly, but now he shares the duties with a nearby elementary school, Central School, which started its own program in December. Interest in the program has spread to nearby schools, he says. A teacher from Central School heard about their program and contacted him. “Don’t talk to me, talk to Sophie; she’s the one who got this going,” says Burnell. “Central School started in early December and another school in the District, Eliot Elementary, just started with the milk cartons.”
The other schools learned about the program through a local newspaper article, word of mouth and at school board meetings where principals discuss new programs. In November 2007, the school board discussed recycling programs around the district. “Recycling is definitely on their minds,” says Burnell. “They’re looking towards a recycling/energy policy for the district.”
Sophie did not stop with milk cartons and food waste. “She talked to me about the use of plastic silverware in the cafeteria,” Burnell recalls. “We don’t use plastic anymore. Sophie did some fundraising and we found that in the long run it would be cheaper to use metal silverware, so we switched. We’re also looking at compostable salad bowls, which are made of bamboo and sugarcane. We’re really cutting down on the amount of trash.”
Principal Burnell summarizes the benefits of the composting/recycling program in the schools:
Leadership training: “One person can make a difference. A lot of people were
involved in this but Sophie was adamant, so she got the ball rolling and convinced a lot of other folks to join in … Here’s a case of one person coming along and making a difference.”
Students learn important values: “Our kids are more conscious now. They’re going to expect to recycle their milk cartons now – when they move [up] to a new school they’ll expect it.”
Connecting behaviors to end results: “I want the kids to see the compost come back [from the farm] for use in our gardens – to understand that this is the end product. It’s easy to throw the stuff in a different barrel, and we want to make the connection, ‘because I do this — this happens.’ A complete cycle.”
On Fridays, a pickup truck is filled with five 40-gallon plastic bags of milk cartons and food waste and transports the materials to Bartlett’s Farm Services. A fifth-generation Mainer, owner-operator John Bartlett has been composting since 1991.
Food wastes from the school are added to his basic compost mix, which includes leaves, wood chips, sawdust, horse manure and lawn clippings when available. The mix is composted in outdoor windrows on asphalt pads, turned with a front-end loader on a weekly basis, weather permitting.
Bartlett explains that when the pile of milk cartons is large enough, he grinds them with his Vermeer model HG 200 trough grinder using a 1.5-inch minus or a 2-inch minus screen. The ground material is added to his basic compost mix. “The Vermeer does a very good job and I also use it for grinding wood waste,” says Bartlett.
IN the coastal towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, 30 minutes south of Portland, there are five schools that send food waste, milk cartons, rice paper plates and napkins twice a week to Winterwood Farms in Lyman, Maine. Robert St. Onge, owner of Winterwood Farms, says that food waste composting from schools is economically viable. Getting schools involved mostly takes willingness on the part of the school board, he notes. “In Kennebunk, the schools saved $2,000 in the first month. Food wastes are the heaviest portion of the waste stream.”
Kennebunk and Kennebunkport School District facilities manager Tom Maines says the food waste program began in the fall of 2007 as an expansion of a recycling effort started the previous year. In the district’s elementary school, the bagged waste was reduced from 16 bags per week to 2 bags as a result of the recycling and food waste composting.
Oceanside Rubbish, which transports organics and other recyclables from the Kennebunk schools to Winterwood Farms, also picks up organics at three schools in the town of Wells, Maine, south of Kennebunk. “We pick up about a dozen 65- to 90-gallon ‘toters’ three times a week of food wastes and about six 8-yard containers of paper including cardboard and paper towels,” says Karl Ekstedt, General Manager at Oceanside. Ekstedt has contacted another southern Maine town, Kittery, which is interested in composting food and other organics.
Ekstedt, who also collects food wastes from many coastal restaurants, says that the main limitations to expansion of school food waste composting are high transportation costs and lack of composting facilities. However, Ekstedt remains optimistic. “My goal is to divert up to 80 percent from the waste stream, which far exceeds the present national average,” he says. “I know it can be done.”

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