Falmouth school teaches value of recycling; production of waste on track to drop 90%
FALMOUTH — A new recycling project at Falmouth Elementary School is projected to reduce solid waste from the cafeteria by 90 percent.
That's the assessment of first-grade teacher Josh Olins, who launched the program and hopes to someday expand it to the middle and high schools.
The program, which includes composting food waste and recycling paper products, was started last November with a $3,000 grant from the Falmouth Education Foundation.
The grant paid for start-up costs – such as wheeled waste containers from Garbage to Garden, a composting company in Portland – and will pay for waste removal through the end of the school year, Olins said. Afterward, it's up to the School Board to fund the project in next year's budget.
"My grant runs out in June," he said. "If we can't include this in the budget, then we stand to lose it next year.'"
At a School Board meeting last month, Olins shared data from the project's first few months. According to his estimates, the cafeteria produced an average of 29 tons of solid waste per year before the program. With composting and recycling, the cafeteria is on track to produce only 2 tons – a 90 percent reduction.
A few months ago, the cafeteria generated eight trash bags each day, Olins said. Now it produces one bag of trash, two bags of recycling, and three containers of compostable food waste. (Unlike small backyard composting systems, Garbage to Garden can accept meat, bones and dairy. Their operation is large enough, and hot enough, to break down proteins.)
Olins estimates the program can continue on $150 to $200 a month.
Olins, whose undergraduate degree is in anthropology, has a history of initiating recycling projects at the elementary school. Ten years ago, the school was already recycling some paper products, but the system was loosely organized, he recalled. So he worked with ecomaine, the town's waste management company, to standardize the school's system and schedule regular pickups of sorted recyclables.
Over the next three years, the system evolved into single-stream recycling, meaning all recyclable materials would go into a single container that would later be sorted by ecomaine.
Now that his composting program is underway, Olins hopes to someday expand it to the other school cafeterias.
"It's my hope that we can consolidate and get down to one dumpster (of solid waste) on campus and pay less for the trash haulage," he said. "That itself should pay for Garbage to Garden to do our twice weekly pickup (of food waste)."
For two weeks prior to the compost roll out, Olins organized skits, performed by children, to teach students throughout the school how to compost and the reasons for it. Then, for the first two weeks of the program, a group of volunteers, organized by Garbage to Garden, helped students sort trash, recycling and compost after every meal.
Now school employees help students navigate the system, which still has a few kinks. Students who were accustomed to dumping everything in the garbage now encounter many steps, which can still create confusion and bottlenecks.
On Thursday, a long line of first-graders formed near the waste containers as students navigated the six stations.
First, they they remove their flatware. Then they dump their milk into a container. The empty milk cartons, along with any other recyclable material, goes into a clear plastic bag. Non-recyclable trash goes into a barrel. Food waste goes into a bin. The tray goes into the kitchen.
The school employs six part-time lunch aides to help supervise students in the cafeteria and get them in and out on schedule. Those employees had been working in the cafeteria before the new system, which some said has added time and frustration.
Debbie Walls, a lunch aide for the school, said composting and recycling are worthy causes, but it's not always easy.
"Some days, like all jobs, are better than others," she said. "They're getting it. It takes a little while for them to get it, but they try very hard. They're getting there.
"It's a great idea. They get the concept, it's just that different ages do a little bit better than others."
Kate Silver, a planning time assistant for the school who also helps with the recycling, said the process can be tricky.
"It's a great thing to do. It needs a lot of forethought and set-up, but it's a wonderful thing. Most of the kids are getting the hang of it," she said. "But it's labor-intensive because we have to really watch."
Olins acknowledged that it can create long lines and confused students, but he believes it's worthwhile.
"Honestly, kids at this age really want to do the right thing," he said. "They believe in the cause."
In the kitchen, employees who used to throw food waste into the trash now have separate bins for composting. Kitchen Director Kim Walker said the system is smooth.
"It's great," she said. "No problems at all."
As part of the deal with Garbage to Garden, the school is entitled to as much finished compost as it wants, Olins said.
This spring, the students will plant vegetables in compost they helped create. Those vegetables will eventually be served in the cafeteria.
"The dream – and it will come true this fall – is to serve food that's been grown in compost that the kids made," he said. "We will complete the circle."