February 17, 2006 | General

Practical Model For School Organics Recovery

BioCycle February 2006, Vol. 47, No. 2, p. 36
Partnership between a school district, local county and waste hauler results in a successful school organics recovery program serving 10,000 elementary students.
Peter DuBois and Penny Ramey

While doing waste audits in Southwest Washington’s Vancouver schools, we noticed a large component of the trash was food scraps. We were spurred to action when Metro – a Portland area regional government – initiated a reduced organics tip fee. In George Bryant, Facilities Manager, for Vancouver Schools, we found an ally who immediately saw that, “Getting food out of the waste is the right thing to do.” Bryant convinced the schools to support the program, and Clark County and a local hauler, Waste Connections, partnered on implementation and assured that the schools would not incur extra cost.
Collecting food residuals from schools has been tried with mixed results in many locations. We were encouraged by the initial successes in the San Francisco and Portland schools. Our pilot project began with just three schools. Now 12 months later, the program has grown to 22 schools, and we plan to expand to the middle and high schools.
The partnership is vital to the success of the program. The Vancouver School District provides critical top down support. Each school is unique and the compost program is tailored accordingly. Principals invite the program into their schools and assist with scheduling the kick-off educational events. These include: faculty meetings, school-wide rock n’ roll assemblies featuring the superhero Recycleman, and informational classroom presentations by Connie Compost.
We have learned that it is essential that no one is blindsided by the new program. You need to first bring on board the custodians and kitchen staff and educate the teachers and students well before the new bins show up in the cafeteria. Waste Connection’s recycling educators deliver the collection equipment ahead of time so custodians can become familiar with the set up for the new cafeteria recycling stations. Every effort is made to get the custodian whatever equipment is needed to ease their workload. Custodians are the sentinels of the program and need to monitor whether students are contaminating the organics bins.
Keeping the organics collection bins contaminant-free is an ongoing challenge and the County and Waste Connections initially provide staff to set up the sorting stations and to monitor the students’ use. Program monitor Bill Drummand says. “People think you can not change things, that the kids will be confused, but believe me, the kids adapt faster than you think.” It is important to understand the existing cafeteria process prior to implementing any change. Kitchen staff are receptive to changes that don’t create unnecessary burdens. In many cases, a more streamlined cafeteria waste collection system results. Good clear signage is important to show students where to dump milk, recycle empty milk cartons, toss trash, and compost the organics.
Now at the end of the lunch day at the average school, there is typically less than ten gallons of garbage, 60 gallons of milk cartons, 35-gallons of organic scraps, and five gallons of dumped milk – less than ten percent is waste! As they say, the proof is in the pudding.
Student response has been enthusiastic. “I’m totally into it now,” says third-grader Ross Wedemeyer, as he separates his lunch garbage. “It’s my job. It’s pretty easy.” Getting the students involved in monitoring what goes into the food waste bins will be another key to the long term success of the program. And we still need to involve the teachers who currently do not compost their scraps in the faculty lounge.
With the new sorting stations in place, unopened milks that were going into the trash are now turned in by the students. What happens to the unopened milks varies from school to school but it has brought attention to the potential for waste reduction. One school kitchen sets out a dishpan with ice to collect unwanted milks for students who want a second carton. Program staff are currently investigating the possibility of redistributing unopened milks. On average, 20 unopened milks a day are returned. A reuse effort could keep over 75,000 unopened milks out of the trash each year from the district’s elementary schools. Plastic straws were also eliminated because of the contamination issues they posed.
As currently organized, bins for recycling are set up in the school cafeterias. When students finish breakfast or lunch, they carry their trays past the bins, dropping milk cartons here, plastic and foil there, and any leftover food in the last can. Milk cartons that are unopened can be placed back in a tub of ice.
Clark County secured a $28,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology to cover start-up costs for the program, including organics tip fees, biodegradable liners, program monitors, and cafeteria bins and signage. The initial start-up cost for the equipment is $325 per school, plus $200 for staff to monitor the cafeteria sorting stations and to train the students. There is an annual cost to purchase biodegradable liners for the organics collection bins. While the cost of liners is still very high, we hope that as the demand continues to increase, the cost will come down. The success of this program hinges on the cost of the biodegradable liners.
Waste Connections currently donates the use of the outside organics containers and the weekly hauling cost. “If you are going to get involved, haulers have to see this program as the right thing to do,” says Dan Schooler, district manager for Waste Connections. “It is important to maximize your efficiencies – fill the truck!”
The goal of the program is to have the schools pay for the additional cost of the liners and organics collection using savings in trash disposal. At $73.18 per ton for garbage and $47.50 per ton for organics, the right incentives are in place. Ultimately the program should be cost neutral for the schools, but there are added educational and environmental benefits. As much as anything, the students’ enthusiasm has convinced district staff that food composting is the right thing to do.
With current organic waste recovery in the program averaging 0.15 pounds per student per day, we will soon be composting 300,000 pounds of organics that used to go to the landfill each year from the Vancouver Schools.
Peter DuBois, Waste Reduction Specialist, is with Clark County, WA and Penny Ramey, Recycling Coordinator, is with Waste Connections Inc.

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