Here's How to Start Composting at Your School

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The benefits of composting are obvious to those who practice it. Composting saves money, benefits the environment and maintains the natural cycle of life. For students it offers lessons big and small. Math, science and nutrition are just some of the teaching benefits. Composting also offers students a sense of pride and even enlightenment about our system of waste and the impact we all have on this planet.

Here are a few ideas from experts in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont for starting a composting program at your school:

Core composters. Start with the school’s green team, recycling club or garden program to plan and take ownership of the compost program. Recruit students, teachers, custodians and kitchen staff for support and participation.

Not everyone will share your enthusiasm for composting food scraps, but backing within these groups at some level is very helpful.

Build a consensus, put the plan to paper and seek approval from the school principal and parent-teacher organization. In public school districts, the facilities manager and/or recycling coordinator — if your district is lucky enough to have one — are great partners.

Promote the program during lunchtime presentations, morning announcements, school TV shows, in newsletters and through backpack express.

In Rhode Island, the Food Policy Council is crafting guidelines for school composting.

Compost collection. Student involvement is ideal for spreading the educational benefits of composting. Elementary-school students are typically the most eager volunteers.

Cluster bins for recycling, food scrap and trash collection. Post signs above bins and have students monitor them as meals are finished. To reduce lines at collection stations, allow students to dispose of their meals on their own instead of in groups.

Five-gallon bins, such as old pickle buckets, are ideal for collection and delivering to the compost station. Again, place them next to recycling and trash receptacles during school meals to maximize the amount of food scrap collected.

Keep it simple by collecting only fruit and vegetables at first. Some schools currently include meat and bread in their food-scrap collection, but it's best to start small to minimize the inevitable glitches. Ideally, have students empty the bins into the compost bins. A committed custodian or faculty member is a second option.

Compost collection can also be done in classrooms, but be sure to empty and clean the bins regularly.

Compost bins. There are many choices for compost bins and all have their benefits and drawbacks.

The most durable are often homemade. Ideally, having students and parents build the bins helps establish commitment and a sense of accomplishment.

Open-top stalls made of wood posts or pallets and hardware cloth wire are simple, inexpensive and sturdy. Click here for construction ideas.

Prefab, plastic compost bins also work well, but they can fill up quickly, which makes it difficult to turn the pile.

Compost tumblers are good for a small volume of food scrap, perhaps for a preschool. Tumblers keep out pests such as squirrels and mice, but they often break down and clog, and the can breed insects and unpleasant odors.

A combination of bins might be a good way to determine what’s suitable for your school. Any compost system needs at least three zones or bins that separate fresh food scrap from maturing compost.

Location, location, location. Southern exposure delivers the maximum sunlight for “compost cooking.” Keep the bins close to a garden for an easy transfer of compost to the garden and garden debris to the compost bins. The bins should be highly visible so that students can show off their commitment to sustainability.

Also, keep the bins away from windows to keep classrooms free from the occasional outbreak of fruit flies.

The top priority, however, is keeping the bins close to a door by the kitchen or cafeteria so that students and custodians can easily empty the bins, especially during bad weather.

Volume. The amount of food scrap generated, even at a small school, can pile up quickly. So it’s best to collect and weigh cafeteria and kitchen food scrap for two weeks in order to determine the size and number of bins needed. As a benchmark, a school that generates 50 pounds of daily food waste would need four 4x4x4-foot bins.

Mix it up. Simplicity also applies here. New England has plenty of leaves, so store a few bags for the school year. Maintain a 3-to-1 ratio of leaves to food scrap. Compost needs nitrogen (fruit and vegetables) and carbon (leaves, newspaper and cardboard) to become fertilizer. Keep a few paper bags of leaves next to the bins for easy mixing.

Experts say a properly mixed ratio of greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbon) will keep pests at bay. But maintaining that balance is tricky and there will be glitches. Learning from mistakes, however, is a big part of the process.

Money. Funding a compost project can cost nothing or up to $1,000 or more. Fortunately, many of the materials, such as buckets, building supplies and trowels can be borrowed, donated or repurposed. Unused compost bins are sometimes easy to find as well. Larger schools may need funds for building supplies, signage and promotional materials.

Possible donors and funders include parent-teacher organizations, local hardware and grocery stores and state grants. The New England Grassroots Environmental Fund is a good place to start.

Why compost? Composting touches on many themes. Science and math are big classroom lessons. Students can conduct experiments by weighing, measuring, monitoring temperature, testing and gardening compost. There also are lessons related to food, nutrition and the waste stream. All of these projects apply to everyday activities.

Expect setbacks, but keeping the core group of advocates intact and motivated will allow the process to succeed and students to appreciate a very fundamental process.