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School Composting Case Studies

Composting At School: Northeast Ohio Case Studies

Several schools in Northeast Ohio are composting leftover food scraps from lunch.  Most of the programs are small scale programs with composting efforts onsite.  One school is paying for the material to be composted at a local Class II Composting Facility.   This article includes explanations and suggestions for school composting programs.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Cleveland

The school with an environmental club made up of students are focusing on traditional composting.  Traditional composting balances carbon to nitrogen ration in the pile, so it means twice as much carbon containing organics such as brown leaves, paper, straw and wood chips compared to fresher and wetter green organics such as flower trimmings, food, manure and grassclippings.  Their compost bin is a tumbler and they store a pile of leaves in a Presto Hoop, which is in a fenced area of the school.  Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s collection data fluctuates depending on the school lunch menu.  On a weekly basis, the school collects between 10 to 112 pounds of food scraps.  The average weekly weight is approximately 64 pounds of food scraps.  The school and the students are amazed by how much "kitchen waste" is diverted through their composting program and recycling of plastics, paper and cardboard.

One of the issues  that the school has been experiencing is obtaining enough brown ingredients.  In the case of leaves as the brown ingredient, it is a short window of time for collection and then the leaves have to be stored until they are added to the tumbler.  As a reminder, shredded paper can be a great substitute for brown leaves to maintain the brown to green ratio.  Another issue is that the students and staff produce more compostable materials than they can process in their tumbler.  Laura Crabb, a teacher who monitors composting activities suggested when planning and setting up a composting system have a back up plan for extra waste that cannot be processed.   She suggested to think about ways to expand the system quickly after the trial period and after the collection kinks are ironed out.  Another suggestion is to find parents and partners to help with composting activities.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is considering adding a digester type bin, which would allow them to collect more food scraps that are not composted in traditional composting.  This may include buttered, oiled or "cheesed" veggies.  Another alternative is to have the students who pack lunch bring leftovers home to be composted in their backyard.  These to solutions still may only address a small volume of food scraps that are still being landfilled.  Another option could be food waste composting at another composting facility.  At this time, only licensed facilities should accept organic materials from businesses and insitutions for composting.  The facilities usually have a pick up fee and/or a disposal fee for the organic material that they will process into compost.  

The school’s next step is to focus on ways to "reduce," such as how to reduce the amount of cardboard and plastic that they use in the first place.



Urban Community School

UCS Garden and Nature Club, who help with Urban Community School’s compost program, marveled at how garbage becomes a useful material for their garden. One of the staff monitors explained the students literally ooooohed and aaaaahed at the rich black dirt that came out of the composter this spring. The Garden club members split their garden yield by donating half to the St. Patrick's food program while taking the other half home.  The Garden and Nature club along with the Recycling Club want to make UCS a sustainable school.

The school has been experimenting with several types of compost bins.  They have a tumbler that was donated and a worm bin.  They reused the materials from the old open three bin system to create a new compost bin.  In addition, they have two garbage can composters that are being filled. The school administration asked the UCS Garden and Nature Club to use a closed composting system, and the garbage can system was the economical choice that they found.  The compost is applied on their gardens, which consists of have a 15' square yard garden and 15 smaller classroom garden plots.   They even use rain barrels to water the classroom plots.

Members of the UCS Garden and Nature Club made posters, which were displayed in the halls.  During the second week of the month, the Garden Club members made daily announcements illustrating the effects of waste and pollution on environment and about what the students can do to help prevent or offset those effects. They started collecting compostable material only on Wednesdays, but as the year progressed they did daily collections.  Small buckets were decorated by club members.  The buckets were set out first on lunch tables and then after several weeks the buckets were set out on a center table in the cafateria.  The contents of the buckets are put in a larger container in the back of the cafeteria during the lunch periods. This container is taken to the composting bins at the end of the day by club members or club moderators (3 staff members).  The school has an enrollment of 430 students and 56 employees, who filled the tumbler and one garbage can with composting materials by the end of the school year.  Also, some of the scraps went into the wormer.

Some issues have been experience that not all food scraps are composted, especially when students confuse the left over milk bucket with the compost bucket. When milk is put in the compost bucket, all contents must be thrown out.  Some compostable material is lost to trash when lunchroom staff forget to encourage the students to compost.  Sometimes the school experienced misplaced buckets; thus not capturing that days worth of organic scraps.  Club members and moderaters know the designated place for the buckets, but non-members do not.

The solutions can be simple such as again placing the buckets directly on the lunch tables, educating and encouraging students and staff to compost daily, and having the clean up process handled solely by the club members. However, at this time the compost collection is competing with other lunch room priorities. The school would like to increase the public awareness aspect of their programs to better educate the students and staff about sustainability. They know that they need to generate more excitement in order for the composting program to grow and be successful.

This past year the Garden and Nature Club joined forces with the Recycling Club in April to collect milk jugs, aluminum cans and plastic two liter bottles. The cans were taken to a recycling center and the Garden Club used the proceeds to purchase plants for the garden. The milk jugs were used to make an igloo for the younger students and the plastic bottles are being saved to make an outdoor greenhouse. The clubs are interested in making a boat out of post-consumer materials and enter the September boat race on Lake Erie.



Magnificat High School

Magnificat High School sends all their foods scraps generated on campus to a Class II composting facility. The facility is operated by Rosby Resource Recycling and the company composts food scraps for institutions like the Cleveland Indians, NASA and other corporations.  The high school is currently the only one in Cuyahoga County that pays for the collection, transportation and composting of their food scraps.

The school has 777 students and 110 faculty and staff that contribute to collecting food scraps.  Seven 45 gallon containers are placed for food scrap disposal in the cafeteria, kitchen and faculty room.  For the lunch periods, the compost bins are located next to the waste and recycling containers.  After lunch, the 45 gallon containers are wheeled out by the custodian staff and dumped into two 75 gallon containers for pick up.  A new compostable plastic liner is placed in the smaller composting containers for the next day's use.  Rosby Resource Recycling picks up the food scraps on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday to be transported to their compost site.  The school is charged for the pick up of the two 75 gallon containers that the staff and students fill each day.

When they started food scrap collection, the challenges were very few staff members and students knew what could be composted. To solve that problem, designated students were posted at the compost bins every day for a month helping people sort their compost, recycling and trash.  Then they posted signs stating what can be composted. This year they will add pictures of what can go in the compost bins, which should be quicker than reading a list.

Heidi Paul, a faculty member at Magnificat stated that the school's trash was cut in half.  Also, many students have begun recycling and composting at home because of the efforts at school.  Some students even bring in items from home because they know the items will not go to a landfill if they bring them to school.

Saint Joan of Arc, Chagrin

Saint Joan of Arc School began composting in the fall 2010.  The Sustainable for Educators and the Environment (SEE) introduced the idea of composting food scraps to the students through a school assembly. The representatives from SEE led mini lessons throughout the day for each class and demonstrated how to use the compost bins.  The School named that week as the “school environmental week,” and also ran contests throughout the week. 

Throughout the year, each class had a chance to collect the food waste and take it out to the compost area. The food scraps were composted each day after the second lunch period. The School alternated using one of the four digester bins and a square wood slated compost bin.  The students and staff filled between a quarter to three quarters of a bucket each day.  The amount varied due to the lunch options for the day.

Some barriers the school encountered was making sure the students were composting the correct items. By the end of the year, an increase in awareness and understanding about which items could be composted occurred.  Lisa Pizzuto, the teacher who wrote the grant for the digester bins believes the solution is making sure that SEE and the staff continue to educate the students about the benefits of composting and the items that should be composted.

She would like the next step in sustainability is possibly creating a garden area. Students can use the soil from the compost bin and digesters to use on the grounds of the school and for the garden.

Case studies reported summer/fall 2011.

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