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Reduce Waste, Recycle, and Teach Green Habits in
One Fell Scoop

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"All schools and communities need to be doing this," says Principal Crystal Miller of her school's composting program. "If we can do it and live at 9,000 feet -- with bears! -- anybody can do this."

Composting was an outcome of a year-long exploration into carbon dioxide gases at Summit Cove Elementary School in Dillon, Colorado. Fourth graders studied harmful greenhouses emissions and discovered that 15 percent of the gases come from landfills. It was a natural extension to look for ways to reduce school waste.


Small Scale or Backyard Composting
Learn more about how to establish composting activities through this site from the Cornell Waste Management Institute.

The Worm Guide: A Vermicomposting Guide for Teachers
Many schools and teachers find it easiest to begin with worm composting, and the California Integrated Waste Management Board provides a free, downloadable guide.

"We thought we would do our own composting, but our landfill, along with the high country conservation center, has been collecting it for us and creating compost we can use for our school landscaping," Miller explained. "All schools and the lunch room collect compostable materials. Now we have started a room compost with worms in addition to the work with the landfill."

The school's parent-teacher organization and building groups have embraced the ideas of creating less waste and composting. All school events have become "zero waste," and students often apologize to Miller if they bring something that generates waste.

"We hope to achieve a cost savings for our school and district because the dumpster is never full," said Miller. "I want to redo that contract and have that money to spend on green works. A green work would be our use of flatware in the cafeteria, which has initial cost, and purchasing compostable forks and spoons."

Students themselves have used graphs and charts and letter-writing skills to request changes to the lunch menu and reduce waste. When their own studies revealed that the cafeteria meal that creates the most waste is the meatball sandwich, the students were dismayed.

"The students have seen the reversal of our compost and trash bins and were shocked at the waste that could be reduced," Miller reported. "Over time I have also seen more re-useable containers and thermoses for lunch items. Kids tell their parents and change happens!"

Miller and the school still battle juice pouches and yogurt containers, which are a big source of non-compostable waste. Composting hasn't been difficult, but it has been helpful to have an organized collection system that is clearly established. Samples have been taped to the outside of the bins as guides, and visitors receive instruction in sorting appropriately.

"All of the kids know where things go, but it is harder to teach an adult," observed Miller. "For example, they think only food goes in the compost bin, yet we compost paper, wax paper, and paper towels. That seems to go right over the heads of adults."


Adults supervise the sorting of food scraps
in the recycling station of the
Alice Ott Middle School cafeteria.
(photo courtesy of James Johnston)

"When we began our composting program, we re-thought a great deal of the waste in our lunchroom/kitchen," recalled Principal James Johnston. "As we started the composting, we also reduced a huge amount of our waste in the lunch room by purchasing reusable lunch trays instead of plastic or Styrofoam trays. We purchased metal spoons and forks instead of tossing them every day. We also really worked with the kitchen on buying condiments in bulk to reduce garbage."

Four years ago, the green school committee at Alice Ott Middle School in Portland, Oregon, decided that the school was ready to take the step of composting to reduce waste. At the same time, the school received a grant to purchase a worm bin, and students in special education classes fed the green waste to red worms, sifted worm castings into large resealable bags, sold worm castings to staff, and used some of the castings in a flower and songbird garden in the courtyard of the school.

"Our greatest struggle has been finding adult coverage to manage the recycling area in the cafeteria as well as building buy-in," Johnston stated. "Students seem to follow what the person in front of them does, so once they start throwing the wrong things in the wrong place, it takes an adult to remind them of what can be composted and what has to be thrown away."

Worm castings from the middle school's
composting program were used by students
to nurture its small courtyard.
(photo courtesy of James Johnston)

Support from administration and a willingness to take the "long view" is essential to the program. The price of the bags used by Alice Ott Middle School is higher than that of regular garbage bags but is balanced by the savings in garbage disposal costs. Johnston's goal is for the students to grow up aware of what they should do with their garbage and to learn early on the habits of recycling and composting.

One individual who is crucial to the success of composting at Johnston's school is Randy Hays, the custodian. Many of the changes that occur in implementing a program impact the custodian and may create more work for him or her. Hays has pushed the school beyond the initial goals of the green team and led the entire recycling effort.

"The hope is that recycling and composting in our school has a greater impact than just the immediate garbage we are saving from the landfill," said Johnston. "Hopefully, students, staff, and families can see how easy it is to make a difference."