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Students put food waste to work at Scarborough High School

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Students put food waste to work at Scarborough High School

SCARBOROUGH — A landfill is no longer the destiny of food waste at Scarborough High School.

That’s the message the Environmental Club of Scarborough sent to the School Board on April 3, when members presented a progress report on the composting program they introduced in the high school cafeteria six weeks ago.

ECOS President Hannah Grover and Vice President Patrick Snowden, both seniors, told board members the high school generates hundreds of pounds of food waste every day.

Since early February, after receiving approval to partner with local composting organization Garbage to Garden, students have been separating compostable materials from their lunches into five specially designated bins in the cafeteria.

Every Friday, Garbage to Garden comes and collects the week's food waste, which is composted and eventually returned to the school as mature, nutrient-rich compost that can then be used to fertilize gardens.

ECOS pays half of the service fee for the collection, and the school pays the other half. The cost fluctuates between $40 and $60 per week, depending on volume; it is also less than what the school paid for garbage collection.

Garbage to Garden, which began curbside composting for residences in Portland nearly two years ago,  composts food waste for several other schools, including South Portland High School, Falmouth Elementary School, and Saint Joseph's College.

So far, ECOS officers say the program is operating smoothly and getting lots of support from students and faculty.

“Once the ball got rolling, I think everything has really fallen into place,” ECOS secretary Molly Roberts, a senior, said Tuesday. “This has been the big project all year.”

“It’s also a great extension of our program,” junior Andrew Rathmell, ECOS treasurer, added.

ECOS started the paper and plastic recycling program at the high school when the club first formed in 2005. The club's main responsibility at meetings every Friday is to collect and properly dispose of the entire school’s recyclables. 

“Now we’re doing food recycling, and it’s great,” Rathmell said. 

A major obstacle for the program has been education.

During lunches, ECOS' more than 20 members and representatives from Garbage to Garden have stood by the bins and helped instruct students about which items are compostable. They’ve put on a school assembly, instructed faculty, and used catchy slogans like “If it grows, it goes; when in doubt, throw it out,” to spread their message.

The ECOS officers think their educational campaign has been working, although they agree they will likely need to continue assisting students during lunches.

“A lot of teachers and students, once they got into the habit of composting ... I noticed there were people who weren’t in ECOS saying, ‘Oh, no, you’re supposed to put that in the other bin’ and they would point it out too, so that means they learned and paid attention,” said Delia Jerrigan, a junior and recycling coordinator for ECOS.

“It’s students helping students,” said academic adviser Terri Eddy.

Grover composts at home, and said she had been thinking about bring composting to the high school since last summer.

“We have all this food waste at school," Grover told the School Board. "It’d be great to make everyone a little more conscious of food waste and the environment in general."

ECOS spent last semester taking Grover’s idea through lots of administrative red tape.

“A lot of this stuff I’d never done before, like getting meetings together with adults who I’d never been in contact with before. I didn’t know how to go about doing that,” Grover said. “But Mrs. Eddy gave me a ton of advice on how to get the adults that we needed on board.”

Sean Milligan, commercial account director for Garbage to Garden, helped coordinate the partnership with the school, and graduated from Scarborough High School in 2009.

"Scarborough’s unique," Milligan said. "At our other schools, (composting) is an initiative led by faculty, but here it's the kids that got it up and running. Without their efforts, I don’t think it would have happened at this school."

ECOS members emphasized, both in their presentation to the School Board and in a meeting Tuesday, the importance of the special help they have received from custodians at the school, who took on extra work to help the club coordinate the new bins and collection system.

“(The custodians) have been really helpful and considerate, I know it’s really hard and a lot of stress learning how to do something new and how it works,” Roberts said.

The group is optimistic for the program’s improvement and growth, potentially into other schools and into the community. Most other schools in Scarborough have their own gardens, and Milligan said Garbage to Garden is looking into expanding its service area.

“I’m hoping it will trickle down,” Roberts said. “I know some parents are getting kind of curious about it. My parents are personally like, ‘Really? They’ll take our garbage?’”

“This is just the beginning,” Snowden said.

School Board members were also pleased by the program’s progress and eager to see composting be more integrated into the community.

“If we can get down to the younger kids and get them into it faster, I think that’s really where the success is going to start coming,” School Board member Christopher Caiazzo said during the April 3 meeting. “By the time they get to to the high school it’s going to be second nature to them.”

The club's first batch of fresh fertilizer is scheduled to be delivered Friday. The delivery will go straight to the high school courtyard, where a life skills class will use it to build a new garden bed. Eddy said the new garden bed will then be used for an adult education gardening class.

“Everything’s interconnected," she said. "Everyone’s benefiting."

“It’s the circle of compost,” Grover said.

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.