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Post-Consumer Composting in Schools

Pre-consumer composting — the method of composting waste in the kitchen before it reaches the consumer — can be a great first step toward improved waste management. However, post-consumer composting — waste management after consumption — represents the next step toward reducing even more contributions to landfills.

Composting has been commonplace for colleges and universities for some time, but more K-12 schools are now jumping into the game.

Take Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, for example. Chef Ann Cooper, director of the district's foodservice program, and her team at the School Food Project have implemented a robust, pre- and post-consumer composting program in the district's elementary, middle and high schools. As a supplement to the School Food Project's existing and successful on-site teaching garden and farm-to-table food program, the next iteration of the waste reduction program will be to conduct some waste tracking through a grant-funded program with LeanPath, a waste management consulting firm.

Implementation Tips

While post-consumer composting proves challenging in any foodservice setting because it requires people to self-sort at the end of their meal, this type of composting can be even more challenging in K-12 schools because of the wide range of student ages and the fact that some students will be more receptive to the idea of self-sorting than others.

That said, here are some of the ways K-12 schools and other foodservice operations can go about implementing a post-consumer composting program, based on the example set by the School Food Project:

  • Obtain funding or form partnerships. The School Food Project partnered with a Boulder, Colo.-based recycling and composting vendor to provide only reusable plates and silverware to students, as well as to help implement the recycling and composting program throughout all of the schools. "We have also received a grant from the Boulder Country Resource Conservation Division to invest in our composting and waste management program," Cooper says. Cooper hopes additional grants will help the School Food Project expand its tracking system at additional schools in the Boulder Valley School District. Some areas of the country have better access to composting vendors and resources than others; that's why grant money through partnerships and fundraising can help traditionally underfunded institutions and other operators find ways to implement more complex post-consumer composting programs, which require more specialized bins, staffing and training.
  • Set up teams and other forms of management and staffing to oversee the program. The School Food Project began its post-consumer composting efforts by holding an all-school assembly to get teachers, students and administrators excited about the program, and to recruit potential volunteers. Those volunteers — as well as custodians and other paid staff — help students at the elementary level sort their plates at the end of meal periods to help properly compost both cafeteria-purchased food and brown bag lunches brought from home. "Monitoring the bins like this helps the flow go faster and we can be on hand to answer questions for the kids," Cooper says.
  • Invest in sturdy composting bins and clear signage. Post-consumer composting requires specific landfill, recycling and composting bins typically earmarked by different colors and clear signage. At the elementary level, signage with different imagery helps children understand where to place their different items. In some parts of the country, composting vendors won't accept certain items, such as meat and bones, in their composting collections. "Here in Boulder, we're allowed to put all food and organic material in the compost bin, which makes things easier for us," says Cooper. Signage for post-consumer composting should include pictures of what — and what not — to include. Some composting programs will accept paper napkins, for example.
  • Educate and incentivize students to compost their food every day. "In Boulder, our kids have grown up recycling, and many are even used to seeing composting bins at home or elsewhere in the community," Cooper says. This is not the case everywhere around the country, so some areas might require more daily education and incentivizing than others.
  • Perform assessments to take waste management efforts a step further. At Douglas Elementary School in the Boulder Valley School District, students took the lead in encouraging their peers to do their part in reducing trash sent to landfills, Cooper notes. "The students decided they were sick of seeing their peers throw away food in landfill buckets and get confused, so they brought in their own scales, and with the help of a parent, were able to conduct their own assessments by measuring the landfill and compost buckets after different grades would come in for lunch," she says. "We provided school lunch and attendance records and they pulled together a presentation for our administrative staff and even won an award from the EPA this past spring." Cooper says the students did such an amazing job that her team is now recreating their own waste tracking and assessment program that they hope to roll out to all schools in the district. "Waste reduction as a whole is our biggest food initiative for the coming year," she says.

Overcoming Age Resistance

"The K-5 students are very into recycling and composting, but middle school children are a little more resistant as they grow older and become more independent," Cooper says. Signage at middle schools should be even clearer than at elementary schools, with extra volunteers at the middle school level for reinforcement.

"By high school, they're into composting again," Cooper adds. "Messaging and education is very important at all levels, however." Even at the salad bar, education is important. "We encourage our students to understand portion sizes and take only what they plan to eat," she says. "Everyone is welcome to come back at any point to take more food, but we're always trying to drive the 'eat what you take, take what you eat' message home and not get them overly excited about what's available. By and large, we don't have a tremendous amount of salad bar waste, which is great."

Other than the salad bar, foodservice staff portion all entrees and sides to meet USDA guidelines for K-12 students, which also helps reduce food waste.

When it comes to the middle school challenge, Cooper hopes the partnership with LeanPath will help educate and excite students about composting because they will see the food they're throwing away on LCD screens. Other operators use waste tracking software platforms to incentivize staff to track everything they toss into the compost bin — the same types of games and rewards could potentially work well at this school level.

"Kids tend to get better about composting if they are faced with looking at it all the time," Cooper says. "Perhaps we could assign teachers and create special teams of students dedicated to overseeing the composting program and encouraging other students to get more involved."

For the new school year, in addition to continuing with composting, the School Food Project will now allow students to return whole, unused fruit back to school lunch staff, who will wash the produce and reserve it for a different meal period. The "share tables" program has been approved by the local health department as part of the USDA's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Cooper believes that with the right resources, partners, education and involvement, post-consumer composting will become a reality, not only in restaurants and colleges/universities, but even in K-12 school districts throughout the country.

Portland Public Schools

Portland Public Schools has implemented a recycling, composting and trash separation program in its cafeterias, as well as the elimination of all Styrofoam trays. The program gives students the opportunity for hands-on learning about recycling, waste reduction and composting beyond simply making the district an environmental leader in its community with the goal of zero waste.

"In years past, cafeterias generated the most trash of any area in our school buildings," Jane McLucas, foodservice director, said on a blog post. "Edible food waste represented an estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of the trash generated in district cafeterias." Add other recyclable and compostable materials currently used in the cafeterias and the percentage of waste that could be diverted from the dumpster during breakfast and lunch increases to an estimated 80 percent.

Separating stations set up in each cafeteria allow students to sort trash, food waste and recyclables into a series of bins and buckets. Student Green Teams at each school, with teacher guidance, form the core group that launches and monitors the pilot.