Be the Change!

Notes from the Compost Pile

I’m not sure why I’m so conscious of waste.  It might be my (mostly) Scandinavian heritage. I’m part Norwegian – part Danish – and some other stuff.  Although my upbringing wasn’t particularly “Scandinavian,” I was raised in Oregon, home of the first container-deposit legislation passed in the U.S., the Oregon Bottle Bill (1971).

I guess it’s no surprise that all these years later, I found myself in the position of Sustainability Coordinator for my daughter’s NYC, Upper Westside public school.  I went about my business shoring up the recycling situation, enlisting Terracycle solutions for non-recyclables and grooming environmentally friendly student behaviors like packing a waste-free lunch, energy & water conservation and air quality awareness.

The cafeteria was a whole other matter however. Our school’s Parent Association paid extra for Bagasse (sugar cane) trays for all 3 schools in our campus building – not an insignificant expense. The driving factor for the pulp trays was health.  It is simply not healthy to eat off of polystyrene.

Beyond the toxicity factor, it was absolutely maddening that all of these Styrofoam trays were being carted to a landfill daily.

But more heartbreaking still was the fact that the expensive, compostable trays were NOT being composted.  As a participant of the NYC, District 3 Green Schools group, I found that I was not alone with my concerns. So, a five-member group of us initiated a Cafeteria waste compost* pilot program. Students were asked to source separate their waste at established stations in each cafeteria. For my building, this was a dramatic shift in behavior and required significant educating and monitoring to encourage participation. The organic waste (including bagasse trays) was then carted by a private hauler to a compost facility.

The data that we collected over a five-month period was important and rather astounding. It was important because no data actually existed prior to our pilot. We certainly weren’t the first schools to collect organics for composting; we were just the first to incorporate a unified system and calculate data on such an undertaking.

The astounding part was that we reduced the landfill/incinerator-bound waste generated in these eight schools by 85%!

We were able to present this data to city officials and give them the bottom line on how much money the City would save by composting NYC school’s organic Cafeteria waste, in addition to the environmental benefits. Our Winter/Spring pilot led to the takeover and expansion (by the Departments of Sanitation & Education) to 60+ schools the following Fall. In January 2013, the program expanded further and Mayor Bloomberg announced a rollout of a citywide collection of organics from ALL school cafeterias by 2015! Since that Fall ’12 expansion, participating schools have diverted nearly 500 tons of organic waste.

Another bonus was that source-separation encouraged the recycling of cartons, metals (foil and aluminum trays), glass, bottles and all rigid plastics. Recycling went up nearly 100% – the same result as the Oregon Bottle Bill!

* You may wonder, why compost? Well, it is another form of recycling – eliminating roughly 30% of the waste stream from landfills. Also, by allowing organic materials to biodegrade properly, we not only gain a nutrient rich soil additive (which eases our dependence on synthetic fertilizers plus aids in soil water retention, reducing irrigation demand), but we also mitigate potent greenhouse gas emissions that are an unavoidable consequence of rotting organic material. The key word here is METHANE. Methane is 20 times more heat producing in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

If you would like to read more about the D3 Cafeteria Compost Pilot, please visit


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