Frederick County Public Schools staff, teachers, parents and others filled the cafeteria of Sugarloaf Elementary School on Thursday afternoon to learn about the new trash and disposal practices that will come to 14 schools in the coming school year.
The selected schools will participate in a composting pilot program called Lunch Out of Landfills.
Thursday was a training session. Attendees learned how the program will be rolled out and how they themselves could pitch in.
Once launched, students will sort their waste into four different bins during lunch — trash, recycling, liquids and organics. Organics are any biodegradable matter such as banana peels and apple cores.
The compost and liquids will then be picked up by Key City Compost, a Maryland-based company, and taken to one of their facilities where it will be recycled.
“It’s a lot of work ... but the results are phenomenal,” said Meghan McKeever, a teacher at Sugarloaf Elementary who was involved with implementing the program there last year.
Joe Richardson, the founder of the program, has been spearheading the effort to get more sustainable practices in schools.
He said the 14 schools were selected largely based on school geographic clusters and feeder patterns in order to have continuity and seamless data.
“We’re really trying to prove to the county school system that this is a self-sustaining effort, but we couldn’t try to implement this in all the schools initially. Fourteen schools will be the catalyst for the entire school system next year — that’s our hope,” Richardson said.
Richardson said they are focusing on schools because of the amount of waste generated there each day. According to Mountainside Education and Enrichment, Americans throw out $218 billion worth of food annually and it starts with kids who either don’t finish their packed lunches or are picky eaters.
“You fight with your kids over dinner, you fight with your kids over what they eat for breakfast, you don’t fight with them over what they eat for lunch because you don’t see what they’re throwing away, you don’t see what they’re not eating,” Richardson said. “If parents saw the volume of waste, they’d be mortified.”
Richardson also hopes the program will educate kids on best sustainable practices, which they will carry into the future.
“When a child has been doing this for two years, they go into a [restaurant] and they say ‘hey, you got a recycle bin, you got a trash bin, where’s the organics?’” Richardson said. “It is very hard to ignore a high school or elementary school student, and that’s where the power of this program is going to come from. ... They are going to be tireless activists in this.”
A large amount of effort is needed from all involved to get the program off the ground. Cafeteria volunteers must be recruited for each school to help with the first two weeks of the launch and students must be taught how to throw away their waste correctly.
That includes recycling. Annmarie Creamer, recycling outreach program analyst for the Frederick County Office of Recycling, gave a presentation at Thursday’s training session outlining what can and can’t be tossed in the blue bins.
“When they don’t know what to do with an item, a lot of folks assume no harm is done by tossing it in the recycling bin,” Creamer said in an email. “Those actions actually make the recycling program less efficient, more expensive and can lead to truly recyclable materials being disposed [of] rather than recycled.”
After the first two weeks, volunteers will be released from their duties and the goal is to have permanent “compost coaches” in the school cafeterias every day to make sure waste is sorted properly.
“We have to continue to monitor this throughout the year to make sure kids aren’t getting lax about it,” Richardson said.
To aid that effort, County Executive Jan Gardner announced last week a $65,000 grant to help hire part-time “compost coaches.”
Richardson said the effort to get a program like this implemented in county schools has been a long effort and is ecstatic it’s finally being done.
“It’s incredibly gratifying,” Richardson said.
Jamie Rodriguez hopes in the future it will be implemented at more schools. Her two sons attend Walkersville Elementary School, which is not among the 14 pilot locations.
Rodriguez has always been interested in composting and came out Thursday afternoon to learn more about what she could do at home. Now, she says she might join her school’s parent teacher organization in order to get the program implemented at Walkersville for next year.
“I think it’s a really good idea. ... When I went to school, I remember it was a big thing, helping the planet, and it really stuck with me,” Rodriguez said. “It would be really cool to get the kids and everybody on board.”
Launch dates for each school have not yet been determined. Some, such as Sugarloaf Elementary and Urbana High School, which participated in the program last year, will start composting on the first day of school. Others such as Brunswick High and Butterfly Ridge Elementary may not start until late October.
For Richardson, having the program at 14 schools this year is just a small step in the right direction and hopes it will lead to a bigger change.
“We think we’ve ignited a brush fire. ... We want to help spearhead this to show other schools and other school systems how this can be done,” Richardson said. “[Because] it’s not a Frederick problem, it’s not a Maryland problem, it’s a nation problem.”