Between Belmont Hill and Winsor, we waste nearly 1,000 pounds of perfectly edible food in a given day and significantly more than the weight of an average car (about 3,000 pounds) in any given week. As most nations around the world take strides to diminish environmental impact and reduce human strain on Earth’s resources, the composting industry has expanded rapidly. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “[f]ood scraps and yard waste together currently make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away, and should be composted instead.” Composting has been around since before the Revolutionary War, and there were periods of larger scale composting efforts, but it was not until about fifteen years ago that it became popular once again for environmental reasons.
Many municipalities nationwide have chosen to build community composting sites, and some have even begun to collect compost with weekly trash and recycling. In Massachusetts, most composting services offer weekly pickup but Acton, MA remains the only town with municipal collection. Schools are in a unique position to help facilitate this waste-management change by educating young people about compost. Many school districts nationwide have instituted sweeping organic waste campaigns, often actively including students in the composting process. In fact, here in Massachusetts, 250 schools, including both local Belmont Public and Boston Public schools, have joined the state’s waste education campaign called The Green Team. How have Belmont Hill and Winsor responded to this global concern? What can even be composted? And how much of an impact can we really have?
Currently, Winsor composts food waste from the dining hall. The compost is delivered to a farm in Saugus, MA, and according to Mr. Crompton, Director of Facilities, “[o]ver the last 7 years we have made some proactive modifications.” If you’re a Winsor student, you’ve seen the complex of bins at the front of the dining hall, each labeled “compost” or “trash.” Perhaps you’ve felt a little perplexed about what goes where. Many students do, and as a result, in previous years, Winsor has only been able to send out few if any bags of compost per year, as most were contaminated with trash. However, this year Winsor’s Dining Staff and Conserve Our World (COW) club have taken steps to minimize confusion and ensure that Winsor can effectively compost its food waste. The complex of bins has been reorganized to be more intuitive and clearly labeled, and COW has spoken in assembly and Upper School Meeting about the composting system.
Although it’s hard to tell definitively how much waste Winsor has actually been able to compost, since the process happens at an independent facility, the school has certainly improved at providing purely compostable waste. Caitlin Bracken ’20 and Lara Simshauser ’20, heads of COW, describe that this configuration was intentional, because “people are more likely to come up on the sides and dump their whole tray in. It’s better if this happens in the trash.” While the occasional plastic cup can be found in a compost bin, the community’s efforts have been apparent: Caitlin and Lara say that “[t]he kitchen staff that we have talked to have said that they’re seeing less and less plastic in the compost every week.” However, Mr. Downes, Director of the Dining Hall, says that “[k]eeping plastic out of compost is still a problem due to rapid departure of [students from the] dining room.”
At Belmont Hill, compost collection officially began in April 2018. As the program grows this year, students have become accustomed to the new waste bins with three slots, one for recycling, one for general trash, and one for compost. In fact, returning students will remember last year’s Chapel talk given by Emma Brown, the director of operations at Bootstrap Compost, one of Belmont Hill’s current composting services. Brown boiled down what can be composted with the simple rhyme “if it grows, it goes.” The BH Sustainability Club and Sodexo have worked closely together to simplify and streamline the waste process, and so far, students have mostly been composting efficiently and correctly. Belmont Hill students should stay tuned for updates to the composting system as the school explores different options.
Nonetheless, it ultimately depends on us to ensure that the school is able to dispose of its food waste sustainably. Environmental and dining leaders at both schools hope to clarify to students that any non-compostable item found in a compost bin ruins that entire bag of compost, so students should consider another rhyme, “if you’re in doubt, throw it out.” For example all food, napkins, and paper plates are compostable, but plastic utensils, chip bags, condiment packets, plastic cups, and wax-lined paper cups cannot be composted. If you’re unsure of where something goes, stay safe and just throw it in the trash.
Overall, both Winsor and Belmont Hill have taken important strides to simplify and manage their growing composting systems. However, students should keep in mind that while composting is a great solution to food waste, an even better approach avoids wasting food in the first place. The Guardian notes that “Americans waste about a pound of food per person each day, [and] people who have healthier diets rich in fruit and vegetables [are] the most wasteful.” While reducing our waste seems like a daunting task, composting at school is just the beginning. Taking that sustainably focused mindset beyond our campuses is how we can begin to make a real difference.