Superintendent's Notebook: Portland school cafeteria waste doesn't go to waste

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Even small acts can have a big impact.

Last fall, students at three of Portland’s public schools began discarding their breakfast and lunch leftovers in a new way. Instead of dumping food, drinks, tin foil, plastic bottles, cardboard and napkins into the trash, they began separating out their recyclables and food scraps into new bins and buckets.

We are composting and recycling more than half of what previously ended up in the dumpster – a remarkable reduction that saves the district money and helps the environment.

The pilot program began in September at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School and Portland High School, and added Casco Bay High School in October. With just those four schools participating, the recycling and composting initiative already has boosted Portland’s city recycling rate.

More schools are joining the program each month. By the end of winter, all of our mainland schools will participate. During the coming months, I will work with the School Board to draft a policy that will fully incorporate this trash separation program into our day-to-day operations.

This is a win-win situation in so many ways.

Our students are learning how they can be leaders in making a greener world by simply taking a few moments to separate out their food scraps, milk, recyclables and redeemables.

When the program is fully implemented, we anticipate reducing the trash that goes to school dumpsters by as much as 50 percent to 70 percent. That will save us thousands of dollars on trash disposal each year – savings that can be reinvested in sustainable practices, such as eliminating the purchase of Styrofoam lunch trays. The School Department is doing its part to help Portland meet its recycling mandate from the state.

The food waste from our cafeterias goes to a new composting business, Resurgam Zero Food Waste, started by two graduates of the Muskie School of Public Service. We look forward to using some of the compost to fertilize our school gardens. That will allow students to see the full circle of growth, decomposition and growth again.

Portland students, parents, staff, the city of Portland and community members all helped launch the cafeteria recycling and composting initiative. Much of the credit goes to two parents, Susan Webster and Martha Sheils, who lead the Waste Reduction Group.

The group formed in 2009 to nudge the district toward a goal of zero waste. Webster, Sheils and the other members played an important role in implementing the cafeteria initiative. In September, they spent a few weeks going to lunch periods at each of the participating schools to remind students to follow the proper procedures for separating out their trash.

Students pour their milk and other liquids into a bucket, then separate out the foil, cardboard, plastic and paper that can be recycled and the cans and bottles that can be redeemed. They scrape food waste into a bucket and discard straws, Styrofoam and other non-recyclables into the trash. Resurgam collects the food waste and hauls it to their composting facility at Portland’s Riverside Recycling Facility.

By reducing the trash going to school Dumpsters, students are learning to become good stewards of the environment. And they are setting an example for our whole community to follow.

At first, some students found the new system “weird.” Now, they ask, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at