Teachable moment: What to do with waste organics, food and paper at schools
Kids can’t help being attracted to the sight and smells, often propelled by their innate curiosity about what’s really inside that overflowing mound of “yuk.”
And to be candid, what organics, food and paper recycler doesn’t feel exactly the same way?
It turns out they both have good reasons to wonder. Recycling researchers at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency were curious, too, so they sorted through 6,000 pounds (two days’ worth) of garbage at six K-12 public schools in 2010 to determine what students, teachers and staff were diverting from the waste stream versus actually throwing away.
Even though all participating schools had ongoing recycling and organics composting programs,
- Nearly 80% of school waste materials could be diverted from the trash into organics composting and container/paper recycling collection programs;
- Half of school waste could be managed via organics composting programs that accept food waste, liquids and non-recyclable paper;
- About 25% of all waste generated was food and another 25% was recyclable paper.
By taking the six schools’ data as a representative sample for all Minnesota public schools, the results provided instructive lessons about the state’s total school waste volume and the potential for separating appropriate items into composting or recycling programs.
Ginny Black, the MPCA’s organics recycling coordinator says, “Schools have really taken to the idea of turning food scraps into food for animals or a soil amendment. At last count, more than five school districts, encompassing more than 60 schools, have begun programs that divert their food and non-recyclable paper to recycling programs.”
Decisions about food service operations attributed for several differences among the schools. Most notable were the compostable-versus-Styrofoam trays, plastic packaging and reusable dishware options.
The results also provided “teaching moments” for schools to not only expand and improve their recycling and composting programs but to help students learn how much waste they generate, how to help protect the environment by composting and recycling, and, given tighter budgets, the opportunity save money by reducing their school’s garbage disposal costs.
Action steps schools can take
- Donate unused, edible food for human or animal consumption. Compost food waste, liquids, food-soiled and non-recyclable paper, and compostable food trays.
- Improve recycling efforts for acceptable items, including paper, metal cans and plastic, glass bottles, and milk cartons (compost if a recycling program is not available).
- Check with local recycling centers to learn about other cost-saving programs. Many areas recycle plastic film and other types of plastic containers.
Though public schools produce more than 43,000 tons of waste annually, they are not the state’s largest garbage generators. They are, however, in a critical positing to send important messages to students who are developing environmentally conscious habits that will last a lifetime – and impact how Minnesota’s recycling rates and conservation efforts fare in the future.