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Composting Program Expanding to More Than 200 Additional Schools

By Amy Zimmer | August 12, 2013 3:08pm
 Nearly 300 schools will be composting food by next spring, Department of Education officials said.
Public School Compost Program
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MANHATTAN — Five eco-minded moms of Upper West Side public school kids piloted a composting program at eight schools two years ago and saw results almost immediately.

By separating food waste from recyclables and other trash, the schools went from producing 54 bags of trash a day to eight, according to the Department of Education, which expanded the program last year to 89 schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Come September, an additional 113 schools in those three boroughs will be added to the program, and another 105 will be added in the spring, school officials said. 

“We had a garbage for trash, a blue bin for recycling...buckets for liquid and a composting bin for food waste, which also takes meat and dairy,” explained Pamela French, one of the moms who created the pilot program and parent at the Anderson School, which cut its trash bags from 16 to three a day. 

The moms created very clear signs illustrating what was supposed to be tossed into which containers — and were on hand to offer guidance.

“We were five parents monitoring every day for five months,” she said, explaining that when the DOE took over the program it tapped "sustainability coordinators" to take over that role.

“The kindergarteners are like little sponges,” French said of how quickly the youngest took to the program, which included a visit to the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm in Long Island City to show how compost is made into soil to grow fruit and vegetables, so the students understood why they were sorting their trash.

Many got their families on board, too.

“Kids were bringing their parents’ food scraps to school," French said.

Though the DOE has been transforming the kind of food it serves for its 865,000 daily meals over the past few years — all schools have moved to whole grain pasta and baked French fries and more than 1,000 schools now have salad bars — it has been slower to transform the way it handles its food trash.

Though efforts are underway to get compostable trays into cafeterias to cut down on garbage going to landfill, food is still served on Styrofoam trays, except on Tuesdays, when paper is used or when parents foot the bill for compostable ones themselves, school officials said.

Compostable trays cost too much money, John Shea, CEO of the Division of School Facilities, said. But the city plans to team up with five other city school districts across the nation to pool their purchasing power to get sustainable trays for a better price, according to a January announcement by advocacy group Cafeteria Culture.

The food compost program saves the city money by reducing trash being hauled out-of-state, but it is being rolled out gradually since there are limited Department of Sanitation truck routes for picking up food waste, which is taken to be composted on Rikers Island, shea said.

"This is important to the city of New York," Shea said of growing the school compost program.

The Bloomberg Administration is also expanding a pilot program of curbside compost pickup for residential buildings that started in Manhattan high rises in Hells Kitchen and Morningside Heights and will be coming to Windsor Terrace and Throgs Neck next, with a goal to reach 100,000 residences by 2014, city officials said.

Having school kids on the forefront of composting helps, Shea said, noting that elementary school kids have been more enthusiastic about composting than high schoolers.

“In high school, they wolf down their lunch and want to run out and do something else,” he said. “With elementary school kids, lunch is fun in itself.”

But with this year’s addition of rigid plastics to recyclables — including yogurt containers and plastic utensils — young kids might have some new challenges sorting their food waste from the recyclables, said French, noting that some still get confused at times with what to do with half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches in plastic wrap. (The sandwich is supposed to go into the compost bin and the wrapper should be tossed in the trash.)

“After they've eaten their yogurt, are they going to really spend time scooping the rest out to compost it?," French wondered. "Maybe you teach your kids to finish their food and lick their [yogurt] cup."

She added with a laugh: “You eat lunch, and then there's a puzzle afterward."