NYC Creates a Stealth Army of Eco-Advocates: Composting Kids

Just try to say no when your fourth grader asks you to separate your food scraps.

(Photo: Greg Dale/Getty Images)

Jun 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Could New York City have hit on the perfect way to get more people to compost? Nagging kids.

It turns out a major push is afoot in New York to get kids composting at school—or, at least, to toss their uneaten fruits and veggies into designated composting bins. As The New York Times reports, the city’s school composting program was launched a mere two years ago, and it’s now in 230 schools across three of New York’s five boroughs. The goal is for it to spread to all of the city’s more than 1,300 public school buildings.

“The hope is that by building up composting in school, the city will help the environment, instill a sense of conservation in schoolchildren and, critically, save some money,” writes Al Baker in the Times. “The city paid $93 per ton in 2013 to dump in landfills, up from $68 in 2004.” In all, New York spends upward of $85 million a year just schlepping food waste to landfills.

But by diverting whatever food tens of thousands of finicky little munchkins are refusing to eat away from landfills and onto industrial-scale compost heaps, the city saves between $10 and $50 per ton. Instead of all those lunch scraps rotting away in landfills, they get turned into black gold—nutrient-rich dirt—which can be sold to folks such as farmers and landscape architects. Oh, and food scraps can also be turned into biogas, which can be used to generate electricity.

It’s a cute story, right down to the “green team” of students who (apparently without complaint) pick through the compost bins wearing latex gloves to remove anything their peers toss in that can’t be composted.

(Here’s what I want to know, though: Was there any sort of back-channel communication between the city’s school administration and its sanitation department? The Times story is mum on that, but it would be genius if there was.)

“New York City’s final recycling frontier” is how former Mayor Michael Bloomberg characterized composting in his last State of the City address in 2013, when he announced that New York would embark on a concerted effort to begin collecting food scraps citywide, first on a volunteer basis but with an eye to eventual mandatory participation.

Indeed, the city has been marching toward that goal, according to another Times story from last month. New York has expanded its initial composting pilot program to encompass some 70,000 additional homes in Brooklyn and Queens, distributing little brown bins for residents to pitch their food scraps in and haul to the curb alongside their trash and recycling.

Not everyone has been enthused.

“It stayed outside my house for two weeks,” one 57-year-old resident said to the Times about the new bin. “I know it’s a good thing, I really do. I have four kids—I want the environment to be better for them. But I hesitated to start it.”

“I thought it was like somebody leaving an abandoned cat at your door—like, what am I supposed to do with this?” another Brooklyn home owner, 63, told the Times.

While some in the program are diligent about separating their table scraps from everything else, the sudden appearance of yet another waste receptacle was greeted with a mix of bafflement and indignation by others, like this woman: “I didn’t even understand it. It’s just in my backyard, sitting there. We have more garbage cans than we know what to do with.”

That’s the genius part about kids composting at school: While jaded, lazy adults may be immune to persuasion by a bevy of stats (for example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste accounts for more than 21 percent of our unrecycled trash—more than any other category), they may be susceptible to guilt induced by their newly composting-conscious kids.

Let’s face it. There may be nothing quite so effective as a force for change than the moral superiority of a 10-year-old tenaciously championing a newfound cause.