April 17, 2008 | General

Setting Up A Composting System At School

BioCycle April 2008, Vol. 49, No. 4, p. 22
Oregon Middle School provides a working model to recover food residuals, showing what can be accomplished and how.
Shara Anslow

THE Portland, Oregon metropolitan area generates an estimated 280,000 tons per year of organic residuals – comprised of plants, food and food-soiled paper. To reclaim this material, the Portland Office of Sustainable Development launched the “Portland Composts” program. Since its inception in 2005, Portland Composts has recruited over 250 participants and this year will capture a projected 12,000 tons of organics. Thus far, this industrial organic waste composting endeavor has not been financially self-supporting. However, validated by a broad community recycling ethic and substantiated by local governmental commitment, a sustainable system for composting organics is in place.
The resource cycling stream in this system consists of: Waste-generating institution; Independent waste hauler; Portland Metro Transfer (and Allied Waste Management); Cedar Grove Composting; and usable compost.
The program serves many institutions – from large, e.g., Oregon Health and Science University, to small, e.g., coffee shops – all working to change how garbage leaves their facilities. This article describes how Alice Ott Middle School partnered with Portland Composts to create a composting system in their school.
Natalie Osburn, principal at Alice Ott, embraces composting with the perspective of educating students and staff about the responsibility to “live green.” She made clear that the school’s ultimate experience with the program would depend on institutional support above and beyond the school.
Students generate up to 300 gallons of food and food-soiled paper per day in the Alice Ott cafeteria. From that, about 10 gallons of fruit and veggies are sorted out for worm bins to produce compost for the school garden. The kitchen generates an average of one to 20 gallons of food waste daily. Food scraps not placed in the school worm bin are sent to Cedar Grove for composting. Approximately 236 gallons of recyclables (e.g. cans, plastic) and 64 gallons of garbage are collected each day from the lunchroom. Each week, independent haulers pick the sorted material up from the school.
Andy Schneider, program coordinator of Portland Composts, offers a broad view of how institutions, e.g., Alice Ott Middle School, succeed in implementing refuse management system changes. According to Schneider, Alice Ott’s program success depends upon:
• School principal (i.e., manager) buy-in, “with a smile!” Osburn has personal interest and drive to create an atmosphere where environmental issues are in the forefront. The methods and tactics enlisted to promote, establish and manage the composting program reflect her dynamic commitment.
• Establishment and training of an effective Green Team to educate and monitor students in processing lunch leftovers. Currently at Alice Ott, teachers and staff make up the Green Team. However, Osburn is endeavoring to promote a different image to her student body. She feels that if the Green Team were “cool” she could begin to rely upon student leaders to role-model, educate and monitor the food waste disposal lines in the cafeteria.
Meanwhile, until she recruits sufficient parents and students for the Green Team, she has allocated staff. Since Osburn initiated the program in January 2007, she has used an enthusiastic, problem-solving staff to establish the atmosphere and habits supportive of a sustainable recycling program.
• Point of entry visuals. This includes clear signage and adherence to container color (green for composting, blue for recycling). Portland Compost’s Schneider has also altered the lids of containers to help distinguish recycling from food residuals. As a home-garage project, Schneider cut half-circle openings in the lids of food waste bins. This visual reinforcement helps keep students from putting nonfood contaminants into food waste receptacles.
• Confronting problems immediately. For example, Osburn speaks about how she resolved a metal contaminants problem. Students were accidentally dropping forks into food compostables bins. She consulted with school maintenance, which produced a powerful magnet attached to a rod. Now, when students drop forks into the bins, they alert staff, who employ the magnet to fish out the forks. Schneider notes that with larger groups participating in composting, the probability of contaminants increases.
At the time the school waste was assessed, Osburn was struck by how many sporks (plastic spoon-forks) the school used each day. Garbage cans were burdened with over 700 sporks at lunch. Consulting with kitchen staff, Osburn decided to buy metal forks. With the increased prevalence of single-use eating ware, many school kitchens have phased out dishwashers. Fortunately, Alice Ott Middle School kitchen kept theirs.
Osburn used the forks as a tracking system for responsible cafeteria processing. She asked students to be careful, keeping the composting containers contaminant-free by not dropping forks in with their residuals. Forks were counted at the end of the month. Osburn set goals and reported the results to her students. She rewarded them with locker stickers for being a Good Green School. According to Osburn, “Kids get it. We model composting and recycling and they understand the need to control garbage.”
Conversations with Schneider and Osburn made this point clear: Leadership ecoethics for reducing landfill waste and the enthusiasm for system and behavioral changes are determining factors in school program participation. One person can make the difference. Portland Public Schools (PPS) piloted Portland Composts and did not have the same success that Osburn reports.
Portland Public Schools found a significant benefit to reclaiming edible food waste (see: BioCycle article, “Diverted School Food Feeds the Hungry” in the August, 2006 issue, access at: http:// 001048.html).
However, they did not have positive results when they attempted to reclaim postconsumer food waste. PPS piloted Portland Composts for three months in 35 of their 85 schools. From this test, PPS determined the cost to implement the program to be prohibitive. The conclusion of the Organics Collection Pilot Project report states: “It is particularly frustrating that grant money exists for participating customer infrastructure improvements but the parameters specifically exclude biobags.”
Osburn reports that the biobags used in composting cost 20 to 40 cents more per bag. She feels that in the interest of teaching students, spending the extra money is “the right thing to do.” Osburn’s school composting system has been in progress for nearly a year and according to the kitchen and maintenance staff, “the program is doable” and a “great way to teach the kids to be environmentally responsible.”
Adopters of institutional organics composting remind me that a bottom-line orientation does not inherently provide the mentality or motivation for innovation. A work ethic – which includes ecological sensitivity – will fuel dedication to support systemic change.
Penny Erickson, site manager for Portland METRO Transfer, presents this vision of the development of the composting program: The role of government is to facilitate innovative systems to solve social/environmental problems. The goal of this program is to create a viable infrastructure designed to resolve a piece of the solid waste disposal problem. In the future, this system will be operated by the private sector. In the interim, organic waste composting will be subsidized.
METRO contracts with Allied Waste Management, a national corporation, for the operation of the 61st Street METRO transfer station in Portland. Allied is a system participant for all types of waste transfer. Organic waste is delivered to the station and inspected by staff. Bob Brandenburg, an Allied employee, walked me through the warehouse where organic waste is dumped, inspected and loaded for shipment. He has worked at the station since the composting program started and is impressed with the amount of material institutions sequester for recycling. Brandenburg has noticed an increase in the quality of material being delivered. He feels that people “get the idea.”
Cedar Grove Composting picks up the organics for processing at its Maple Valley, Washington plant, which is 160 miles from the METRO transfer site. Cedar Grove hauls 26 tons of waste per truck, 11 to 13 times a week. The number of miles organics travel for processing is about the same number of miles unreclaimed waste travels to the Arlington landfill in eastern Oregon.
Cedar Grove is actively looking for property to build a composting facility in the Portland area. A feasible facility will require at least 20 acres to process up to 80,000 tons per year of organics. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality restrictions and NIMBY obstruction are delaying the purchase of land.
Portland area waste haulers are independent contractors. There are no set franchise fees for hauling waste. The tipping fee haulers pay for disposing organics at METRO is $47.50/ton (compared to landfilling at $71/ton). The hauling fee charged to clients varies, influenced by several factors. If clients produce contaminated waste, haulers often pay the higher tipping fee. Organics pickup sites are scattered throughout the city. To collect a full load, routes are often longer, which increases operating expenses.
Both Penny Erickson and Andy Schneider talk about the independent hauler system in terms of information sharing. Erickson states that METRO operates as a regulator for haulers. Within this system of waste generator to hauler to METRO, information could be shared to improve institutional success rates with organics composting.
With an increase in participants, Schneider has started to rely on email and phone calls for follow up with composting program participants. His time is limited for many repeat site checks. If haulers provided Schneider with feedback about how program participants are doing, he could increase targeted outreach for problem-solving. However, the established “regulatory” relationship prevents the easy development of cooperative information-sharing.
As in any effort to convert a system from linear to loop, sustainable organics composting depends upon committed personnel, professional networking and cooperative individual relationships, in order to achieve competitive financial self-sufficiency.
Shara Anslow is employed as a Nutrition Educator in the Oregon State University Extension Service and researched this article while enrolled in Phil Kreitner’s graduate course in Food System Sustainability at Portland State University.

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