A recycling and composting program in Minnesota’s Independent School District (ISD) 191 is demonstrating how much more schools could be doing to divert trash from the waste stream. ISD 191 has instituted the program in each of its 15 schools — located in Burnsville, Eagan, Savage, Apple Valley and Shakopee — with the help of a member of Minnesota GreenCorps. The effort has already dramatically reduced the amount of district trash that ends up in landfills.
Getting help from GreenCorps
Although the district had already started a basic recycling program with help from Dakota County, school administrators knew it was possible to do more. According to a 2010 MPCA study of six Twin Cities schools, a typical school could divert more than 78 percent of its trash to composting and recycling. Read more about the study: Digging Deep through School Trash - A waste composition analysis
The school district applied to the GreenCorps program for a person who could work on waste prevention and recycling. Minnesota GreenCorps, a program coordinated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, places AmeriCorps members in service positions focused on environmental projects.
GreenCorps member Elizabeth Just was assigned to ISD 191 and started her 11-month term in November 2012. She visited the schools, talked with staff and administrators, and came up with a program that was modeled on strategies used elsewhere by GreenCorps, Hennepin County and Dakota County. “We did both the actual setting up of the containers and organizing the logistics for the hauling purposes and logistics on the custodial side,” Elizabeth says. "We also did an education piece on top of that.” In all of the elementary schools and some of the junior highs and high schools, Elizabeth gave a presentation on why recycling and composting is important and instructed students on using the sorting containers
Major waste — food and paper
Cafeteria waste is the largest source — nearly 25 percent of the total garbage generated by schools. Another 10 percent comprises compostable items such as paper towels, napkins and paper plates. The study estimated that 50 percent of school waste could be managed through composting. For ISD 191, “that’s a huge volume of items” Elizabeth says, especially once the schools switched over to using compostable trays and started composting milk cartons.
Recyclable paper, including cardboard, office paper and mixed paper, represents another large opportunity and accounts for more than 23 percent of a school’s total waste, according to the MPCA study.
Costs and benefits
There are initial costs for setting up the recycling and composting program, including buying bins and creating signage. “But overall, we’ll save money for the district,” Elizabeth says. The savings will mostly come from avoiding the 17 percent hauling tax on trash. “You save 17 percent on anything that goes to a compost facility or the recycling facility, which is huge for a school.”
Donley Johnson, the district’s energy and transportation supervisor, has come up with some estimates based on the collection frequency of dumpsters. His rough calculations suggest that in just four elementary schools, the program is diverting more than 13,000 pounds of trash each week. The percentage of unrecycled and uncomposted trash fell from 64 percent to just 10 percent in those four schools
Asked about her biggest challenge, Elizabeth notes that no one really owns the project after her term is over. “It is part of the custodial duties but it’s also not their only job.” Before she left, she needed to ensure the work would continue. “We’ve really noticed that the only way to really do it is if multiple groups of people come together.” She emphasizes the importance of making sure everyone is involved.
In the cafeterias, the educational assistants have to remind students to sort their waste. The custodians interact with the waste hauler and may have to do some after-the-fact sorting. The principals and administration have to keep the momentum going. “Coming in as someone from outside of the district and then trying to learn all of these pieces has been probably the most challenging,” Elizabeth says.
However, she’s pleased with how it’s going. “I’m very surprised — even the schools where we weren’t sure if the kids would get it and we weren’t sure how accurate they would be with sorting — they are doing really well and even the custodians have noticed a huge difference in how much waste they dump out.”
Here’s hoping other schools are inspired to follow ISD 191's example.