I’m not sure why I’m so conscious of waste. It might be my (mostly) Scandinavian heritage. I’m part Norwegian – part Danish – and some other stuff. Although my upbringing wasn’t particularly “Scandinavian,” I was raised in Oregon, home of the first container-deposit legislation passed in the U.S. – the Oregon Bottle Bill (1971). I guess it’s no surprise that all these years later, I found myself in the position of Sustainability Coordinator for my daughter’s NYC, Upper Westside public school. As soon as I took over, I shored up the recycling situation, enlisted Terracycle solutions for non-recyclables and groomed environmentally friendly student behaviors like packing a waste-free lunch, energy and water conservation, and air quality awareness.
The First Obstacle – Polystyrene Cafeteria Trays Versus Compostable Trays
The cafeteria was a whole other matter however. Our school’s Parent Association paid extra for bagasse (sugar cane) trays for all three schools in our campus building – not an insignificant expense. The driving factor for the pulp trays was health. It is simply not healthy to eat off of polystyrene. Beyond the toxicity factor, it was criminal that all of these non-degradable Styrofoam trays were being carted to a landfill daily. But more heartbreaking still was the fact that the expensive, compostable trays were NOT being composted.
As a participant of the NYC District 3 Green Schools group, I found that I was not alone with my concerns. So, a five-member group of us initiated a Cafeteria waste compost pilot program. Students were asked to source separate their waste at established stations in each cafeteria and a private hauler carted all of the collected organic waste (including bagasse trays) to a compost facility. For my building, this was a dramatic shift in behavior and required significant educating and monitoring to encourage participation. (Link here for more information about the D3 Cafeteria Compost Pilot)
The School Compost Pilot Takes Off!
The data that we collected over a five-month period was important and rather astounding. It was important because no data actually existed prior to our pilot. We certainly weren’t the first schools to collect organics for composting; we were just the first to incorporate a unified system of gathering metrics and calculating the data on such an undertaking. The astounding part was that we reduced the landfill/incinerator-bound waste generated in these eight schools by 85%! Another bonus was that source-separation encouraged the recycling of cartons, metals (foil and aluminum trays), glass, bottles and all rigid plastics. Recycling went up nearly 100% – the same result as the Oregon Bottle Bill!
It Turns Out That Composting Saves NYC Money
We were able to present this data to city officials and give them the bottom line on how much money New York City would save by composting NYC school’s organic cafeteria waste, in addition to the environmental benefits. Our Winter/Spring pilot led to the takeover and expansion (by the Departments of Sanitation & Education) to 60+ schools the following Fall. In January 2013, the program expanded further and Mayor Bloomberg announced a rollout of a citywide collection of organics from ALL school cafeterias by 2015! Since that Fall 2012 expansion, participating schools have diverted nearly 500 tons of organic waste. (Link here for a New York Times profile of the NYC school compost program and here for a commentary by Elizabeth Royte about citywide composting efforts)
Green Moms Taking Action Leads to the Ultimate Success Story
I’m the kind of person who has always had a hard time throwing things away. I require a responsible place or use for my trash or I can’t be at peace. The fact that I’ve had a hand in teaching children a better understanding of where our garbage goes, what we generate (needlessly) and each individual’s responsibility to their own waste, is beyond fulfilling. But my ultimate ‘dream come true’ is the fact that our D3 Cafeteria Compost Pilot ended up leading to change on a citywide level, and our journey might even inspire other schools and cities across the nation to follow suit.
What experiences have you had in persuading others to compost or take other steps to reduce waste? Please share.
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