School-wide composting; why isn’t it happening!?

“You can solve a lot of the world’s problems if you do school right.” (unknown author)

As a principal, I get a bird’s eye view of the many moving parts associated with operating a school. From instructional programs and curriculum, to facility and food service management (and everything else in-between; PTA’s, personnel, standards, assessment, discipline, athletics/clubs, scheduling, special education, purchasing, staff & student travel, professional development, etc., etc.); they all interact to produce your local educational system.

More importantly though, is what that “system” outputs; that is, the quality of human being that walks across the stage on that celebratory spring day. For the majority of their developmental lives (0-18), they participated “compliantly” in our public education system; completing the district’s (traditional?) requirements, earning a diploma and a new title, adult. Those graduates then become our “society”, our 18-64’s.

What our schools “assess” defines what our schools “value”. And everything our schools feel is less important “should be taught at home” (ever heard that before?). Our children, starting at the age of 5, become trained to value these “values”, to jump through the hoops and get the treat at all costs. Our voluntary requirements are debatable though, and garner immeasurable amounts of time, energy, and money. But schools also harbor “involuntary” processes (like breathing) that generate byproducts/learning/experiences/habits (like carbon dioxide) as well. While some of these are beneficial; success, resolution, social maturity, accomplishment, etc.; others can be harmful; marginalization, humiliation, negative habits, etc.

While there are just as many (perceivable) flaws in our educational system as there are educational philosophies among its stakeholders, the specific one we’re about to discuss resonates intimately with me. As a fan of Wendell Berry and the agrarian society he so passionately advocated for (read The Unsettling of America; Culture & Agriculture), and just being an aspiring subsistence gardener/forager myself, it all starts with the soil.

This post is going to focus on two of the most important and abundant byproducts our schools generate; not grades and graduates, but paper and food scraps. How we handle these products will leave a lasting impression on our young “witnesses/participants”, and the planet they inhabit.

This fall, the majority of the 50,000,000 American students will continue to be trained to view those items as “waste” products. But that’s just the problem, they’re only products until we treat them like such (waste). The only difference between waste products and resources is a mindset/perspective. So what mindset is our (American education) culture instilling in our youth when it comes to used paper and food scraps?  Does it emphasize the rich and integrated life “cycle” in all its entirety (the molecules don’t disappear), the energy that’s been used to create those products, and the beneficial/potential energy still left in them? Or is it more similarly aligned with our toilets, and the debilitating philosophy that mimics them; flush it and forget it, linear model, and perceived obsolescence?

When is the last time someone asked a child, “what would you like to do with your poop”, another incredibly beneficial byproduct all 7,000,000,000 of us on earth are constantly producing? Or even presented an alternative to our current system (which is young in geologic terms)? Similarly, what options do we present students for their leftover food and used paper? What I’ve seen time and time again in mainstream schools across America is what philosophy our society can ultimately be defined by; “throw it away”. Is incineration the best we can do?

Do we think that kids will just “discover” recycling, and it’s benefits; new ways to improve our sewage system, while maximizing humanure’s potential (read The Humanure Handbook), or how to better re-purpose used materials? Or should we model it for them during their most formative years? Should we make it a societal norm?

Yes, I think we should…

I have started composting programs at all 4 schools I’ve worked at in my career; including one district-wide initiative. Does that make me special, an expert; hell no. But what I can offer is what I’ve learned and experienced firsthand when trying to change the paradigm from viewing used paper and food scraps as a resource, rather than a waste product. Below is a description of the current composting system within Wrangell Public Schools, along with some considerations for starting one at your school.

Note: The “systems” I’ve setup have been for schools and districts with less than 300 students, most with 25-50 students each. They are by far not the best or most complex composting schemes around, but they are by infinitely better than what was going on beforehand.

My current “system” here with Wrangell Public Schools:

The first thing I did to “get the ball rolling” in Wrangell was to have numerous informal discussions around the idea of composting, and what the perceived challenges of starting it in our district would be. I talked to everyone from the superintendent and food service manager, to the custodian, parents, and 6th grade students. By doing this I was able to determine the general “feel” from the stakeholders, gauge the challenges that lays ahead, and identify crucial allies needed for successful implementation.

Next, I held a meeting (open and advertised to the public) to discuss our composting initiative, and that initiative only. I made sure to schedule the meeting so that those with a can-do attitude (as opposed to nay-saying) and/or those strongly supporting composting would be able to attend. It’s so important to start off on a positive note, especially when trying to change something that is so engrained in school culture. At the meeting we discussed everything we could think of regarding our initiative (S.W.O.T., logistics, etc.), and even drafted an action plan (WPS Draft Composting Action Plan); the time for “talking” was over!

Then I selected two seniors from the “I have no idea what to do for my senior project (25 hour service learning project)” pool, and ran the action plan by them; they were in. I put one in charge of the paper and the other in charge of food scraps. Their first task was to create an action plan for each of their initiatives, and then run it by me for approval.

Once this was complete, I turned them loose with their project. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. I know that the key to starting a successful and sustainable school-wide composting program lives and dies by the first week of operation.   If things start off smoothly (were well designed), people are excited to jump on the bandwagon and will be more tolerant the inevitable challenges that will emerge (we throw stuff away because it’s easiest right!?). If the first week causes stress, anxiety, or more work for adults, you will be fighting an uphill battle from then on. People generally don’t compost because it’s more work and/or unfamiliar.

The student in charge of composting started collaborating with the key stakeholders needed to get that started; the elementary and secondary principals, the food service manager and staff, lunchtime monitors, and our science teachers. The 6th grade science class conducted a baseline study that measured (in weight and volume) how much paper and food scrap “waste” we created on a weekly basis (on average), then graphed it for display in our commons/cafeteria. From the information he gathered through conversations and that study, he then designed a collection system. What he needed was four 18-gallon totes (1 in each cafeteria and kitchen) with a lid and liner (trash bag; changed weekly or less depending on smell),”liquids” pitchers at each cafeteria for students to pour into, signage, and shredded paper to add to his “piles”. He then spoke with the construction teacher and had him design the actual composters that would be needed to handle our projected output. And then he began…1 hour a day (or less) to collect, dump, clean, and return the totes.

The student in charge of paper recycling/shredding started collaborating with her key stakeholders; teachers and secretaries. She formed a “recycling” club comprised of students that met every Wednesday for an hour or two to work on the challenges of her initiative. First step, getting boxes and signage into every classroom for collecting used paper.   Next step, purchasing an industrial shredder to handle the (disgusting) amount of paper our pilot study projected we’d generate. Lastly, finding a suitable location to store bags upon bags of shredded paper. And then she began…

Currently, every food scrap created in Wrangell Public School district is composted. That includes our elementary, middle, and high school breakfast and lunch scraps from individual students, our kitchen scraps from preparing those meals, culinary arts class food scraps, and even scraps from our national snack program.

WHS Student Composting
A WHS student composts. Notice the signage, 18 gallon tote with liner, and cart with “liquids” pitchers available.

Things to consider when setting up a composting program at your school:

Build consensus. Start with strategic/key “players”, especially those you know will be in favor and/or influential. Get everyone involved, on board, or in the loop; communicate early and passionately.

Form allies in the community; parents, partner organizations, other businesses, etc. I’ve found that most generally want to participate; especially if it’s not more work for them!

Include students in the process; K-12, everyone can compost!

Keep it simple and do a great job at it. Rather than spread yourself thin, trying to recycle many different items. Start with these 2 and do it right!

Often times I think we invest too much money into adults. If you gave me a million dollars to change the world, I’d invest in a 5 year old any day (rather than a 50 year old)! If kids start composting, adults will start composting. But the converse of that is not true. Education is the soil of our society; how we treat it will inevitably become our world.

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