Schools across America are increasingly adopting a practice that not only saves them thousands of dollars and benefits the environment, but offers students hands-on projects that correspond to the curriculum at every grade level. Surprisingly enough, this sensational practice is composting.
Early to the green bin game, San Francisco already had the infrastructure in the '90s to be the first to place the receptacles in school cafeterias, and now at least 80 percent of the city's public schools have them. Not surprisingly, of the other districts with strong school composting programs are Portland and Seattle, as well as many other districts in Oregon and Washington state.
Tamar Hurwitz, environmental education manager at the San Francisco Department of the Environment, says she's shared start-up information with many municipalities, like Cambridge, MA, Denver, CO, and even rural Bellingham, WA. Now that people are learning the role it plays in reducing greenhouse gas, Hurwitz says, "Composting is today what recycling was in the '80s." In other words, it's about to explode.
Since New York state launched its school organic waste collection pilot program at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, 16 schools and 17 colleges have taken part, with 10 more in the process of joining. One of those schools is the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School, which the Utica Observer-Dispatch reports saved more than $6,000 annually in trash disposal fees, which run about $70 per ton.
Mary Schwarz, extension support specialist for the Cornell Waste Management Institute, says that up to 80 percent of typical school “garbage” is actually compostable material. After the recyclables and liquids are also separated out, only about five percent of what gets thrown in the garbage is actual trash. Realizing that, more schools have willingly adopted composting programs to save on waste management costs.
But there are further economic benefits to the process. Compost, which is the rich substance created from decomposed organic materials, can be used as a soil conditioner for school gardens, landscaping, and athletic fields, preventing the need for costly and environmentally damaging fertilizers.
But the benefits hardly stop there.
Christine Robertson, the director of education at Earth Day Network, an environmental umbrella NGO organizing the Green Schools Campaign, says that composting contains an important educational opportunity—engendering personal accountability among students and faculty. “From an environmental studies perspective it teaches us other ways to use our waste,” she says. “We talk about reduce, reuse, recycle, but [composting] is all of those things.”
The benefit for teachers in particular is that composting can be easily tied into different curriculums. “From a science education standpoint, it’s really important,” Robertson says. “The composting process teaches scientific concepts related to how ecosystems function... It’s a hands-on activity that demonstrates the nitrogen cycle, how things biodegrade, and gives students a window into these processes that they typically don’t see other than in an infographic in their textbooks.”
Kim Chaloner, the Dean of Community Life and 9th grade biology teacher at Grace Church School in Manhattan, agrees that, "There are a lot of entry points for the kids." In the early childhood program, after clearing their own lunch tables, the youngest students take their compostables to a worm bin in their homeroom to learn how food decomposes. Elementary school students relate the practice to their lessons on conserving resources and energy. And high school students, who are taught to cook their own food, composting has been integrated as a final step in their process.
"I’m really happy that a lot of what we started is run by the students," Chaloner says. "They feel that they own it and that’s really important."
While a school's administration or grounds team may be the ones to introduce composting, teachers also can take the initiative by talking to their principal, maintenance, or cafeteria staff, or by planning a small classroom project, using mini compost bins with their students.
Local waste management departments or non-profit organizations like the Cornell Waste Management Institute provide resources for interested educators and schools. And with them, schools interested in a larger program can strategize whether off-site composting is the appropriate option, or whether it's preferable to keep the process on school grounds so the compost can be used for landscaping, gardening, and expanded educational opportunities.
A schoolwide program generally begins with a careful analysis of the school’s trash. Mary Schwarz refers to it as a “weigh and sort,” where students and faculty devote a day to keeping their waste materials in separate bins: one that holds compostables, another for recyclables, and a third for actual garbage. At the end of the day, once each bin has been weighed, faculty and students can get a dramatic understanding of how much compostable material they’re creating, and how much of it they've been throwing into the garbage.
"I think starting small and focusing on what’s really practical is what makes it possible to really stay on the program," says Kim Chaloner. Her own school's program started five years ago with a few classroom projects. With some lessons on worm composting from the Lower East Side Ecology Center and help from books like Mary Apelhoff's Worms Ate My Garbage, those small steps grew into a school-wide initiative.
And that practice has had community impact. "A lot of parents tell me that they started composting at home because the kids were doing it at school," Chaloner says.
But for students and teachers who have never done it, composting can admittedly seem a little weird. "Some kids think 'Eww, I don't want to separate out my food,'" Schwarz says. "But after they get involved in the process, they realize it's really a fun and cool thing to do."
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.