Before trash bags are hoisted into the dumpster at Sugarloaf Elementary School in Urbana, they are placed on a scale.
The numbers don’t lie.
More than half of what’s thrown away at lunch is organic and, in many cases, food that could be eaten. The school can say this definitively, because it has collected data on the pounds of trash, recyclables, liquids and compost its students discard in the cafeteria during lunch almost every day since Jan. 15.
“I knew the amount of food being wasted in elementary schools was bad. I didn’t know it was this bad,” said Joe Richardson, an early advocate of in-school composting.
For more than two years, Richardson has pressured the Board of Education to fund in-school composting and applied for grants to get pilot programs started when progress has slowed. He secured approximately $20,000 from local Rotary clubs to compost at 12 schools next fall.
Superintendent Terry Alban allocated an additional $10,000 in her proposed 2019-2020 school budget to partially fund composting programs in some Frederick County Public Schools, and last week, she committed to finding a financial path to keep them going, despite an initial system wide budgetary shortfall of $19.8 million.
“When it was first bubbling up, I was like: I am struggling to balance the budget anyway, I don’t need another pressure on me,” Alban said. “I will be very candid and say, I came at it strictly from a fiscal-issue position.”
However, her stance started to shift in 2017 after watching a “60 Minutes” segment on plastic pollution, which left images of remote islands strewn with trash and carcasses of birds whose digestive tracts were clogged in plastic seared into her mind. Now, awaiting the birth of her first grandchild, her thinking has shifted again to the future of FCPS and the Earth.
“It really jarred me, and that’s when I said, ‘OK, I understand the fiscal challenges we’re going to face,’ but as I said to Mr. Richardson, I’m all in,” Alban said.
Time for change
By offering in-school composting, FCPS is able to send its waste to more than just a landfill or recycling plant.
Sugarloaf Elementary School became the first local elementary school this academic year to collect its food waste.
According to the data collected by the school, the students produce an average of 210 pounds of waste per day in the cafeteria. Because it now separates food, liquids, trash and recycling, the students rinse 49 pounds of liquid down the drain and send 109 pounds of organic material to a professional compost business instead of the landfill.
The remaining 22 pounds of recycling and 30 pounds of trash are disposed of as they were before.
At a recent breakfast at Sugarloaf, the school’s student “waste warriors” group gave Alban a lesson in separating her trash. As it turns out, the elementary students had something to teach the superintendent: Plastic cutlery is not recyclable.
Alban’s recent interaction with high school seniors, however, was a bit different.
Each year before graduation, Alban sits down with a representative group of seniors from FCPS’ 10 high schools. She jokes that it’s her “customer satisfaction” survey.
This year, Alban asked the students about change: how they had changed, how FCPS should change and how their lives will change after graduation.
One of the themes to emerge was a need to change for the environment.
Loretta Donoghue, a senior at Brunswick High School, was one of the students selected for Alban’s meeting. She and eight young women have advocated for in-school composting to come to their high school.
“We would have diverted so much waste and it would have been second nature by now” if they had composted since kindergarten, Donoghue said. “I think in 10 years, this will be second nature, because the elementary school students will be in high school.”
As of right now, however, there are only trash cans and one solitary recycling bin in her high school cafeteria, she said.
Urbana High School, the first FCPS school to compost, looks very different. Four buckets stand in a line in place of traditional trash and recycling cans. The four-bin system has been in place since January 2018, when Urbana High School switched to separating compost and liquids from its trash and recycling.
Just because the four-bin system exists, however, does not mean every student uses it.
“One of the things that our composting program really lacks is people using it,” said Ember Carrera, a sophomore and International Baccalaureate student at Urbana. “Everyone is forced to look at it, but not forced to use it.”
The big problem yet to be addressed, however, is the amount of food being served in school cafeterias in the first place.
School lunches are tightly regulated by the federal government, and if FCPS fails to manage its program correctly, it could lose its eligibility for reimbursement for the subsidized breakfasts and lunches it serves.
“In order to get reimbursement for a meal we serve, every component of the lunch must be taken,” Alban said. “A child might say to you, ‘I don’t want that.’ ... ‘I don’t want the peas,’ or whatever, and if we don’t give it to them, then they have not received all the components of the meal, and when we are audited, we lose our reimbursement.”
The food waste problem is not isolated to the food served in the cafeteria line, either. Many students will bring packed lunches that are then tossed in the trash, Carrera said.
“Parents are overpacking lunches,” Richardson said.
An audit of cafeteria trash at three elementary schools this winter found that food made up between 49 percent and 68 percent of elementary lunch waste. A similar sort at Brunswick High School found food was approximately 35 percent of trash.
Across schools, the data suggest that more than 80 percent of all waste produced by students in FCPS school cafeterias could be diverted to a site other than a landfill.
While the audits are only a snapshot of one day of the school year, the numbers tell a stark story of what goes from lunchbox — or lunch tray — to the garbage. And Long term, the data from Sugarloaf Elementary School suggests the waste characteristics of a school does not vary widely from day to day.
Having the total volume of waste stay consistent — even after composting is initiated in a school — creates a financial problem for FCPS.
FCPS currently pays each time a dumpster of trash is hauled away from a school. If it were paying per pound of trash, then there would be an incentive to compost because food and liquids are heavy, Alban said. Paying per dumpster, however, makes it more difficult to reach a cost-neutral balance, because the school system must contract with separate companies to haul the organics or trash away, she said.
FCPS is still crunching the numbers on how it will afford in-school composting as it has seen no savings from its two existing programs, Paul Lebo, chief operating officer for FCPS, said by email.
“In the long run, we project savings can only be brought about by the economies of scale of a system wide composting program, and a restructuring of our refuse contract so that we can benefit from reduced tipping fees,” Lebo said. “The reduction would come from the removal of food waste from our waste stream.”
This means to make composting in schools a success, kids and parents are going to have to do some homework.