South Charlotte

‘Mess’ composting cuts down on waste

Teaching kids to compost their leftover lunch can be a little sloppy.

Students at Elizabeth Lane Elementary recently began learning about, and practicing, composting as school officials helped them dump food scraps in one bin and trash in another.

Inevitably, some of it ends up on the floor, especially if there’s sauce involved.

“Some days are a little messier than others,” said Christy Davis, Elizabeth Lane Elementary School cafeteria manager, with a laugh.

The mess is a small price to pay for a program that officials hope will keep thousands of pounds of food waste away from the landfill, and instill in children lifelong habits.

Elizabeth Lane is the 15th school in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system to join a pilot program that began two years ago, said Derrick Harris, environmental supervisor for Mecklenburg County Solid Waste. The county began the food waste diversion program after a 2012 study suggested that food waste was a leading component of CMS waste.

On average, a student produces about one pound of food waste a week, Harris said. CMS has more than 144,000 students in 164 schools.

“Hopefully, if we can show a reduction in the amount of waste that’s being disposed of, they’ll take it system-wide,” Harris said.

Students are asked to separate their leftover food and dump it in a special bin lined with a green plastic bag. Schools can have one bin for each day of the week, and at the end of lunch the bag is tied off and a new bin is rolled in.

The food waste at all 15 schools is picked up at least once weekly by Earth Farms Organics, which makes compost and topsoil products at a farm in Dallas, N.C.

Earth Farms Organics President Jim Lanier said CMS approached him about collecting the food waste. He charges a fee, which he tried to keep lower than the landfill dump fee.

Once the food waste is composted, Earth Farms Organics sells it back to CMS schools for a reduced rate to use on school gardens and landscaping.

Lanier said it’s important that students know composting is about more than throwing their food in a separate trashcan.

“If we can make this a way of life for a child at school, they will go home … and their parents will make their change as well,” he said.

Food waste, he said, is the largest contributor to methane waste in the landfill and contaminates items such as paper and cardboard that otherwise could be recycled.

Lanier said his trucks pick up about 40,000 tons of food waste a year from its clients, which include CMS, Johnson & Wales University and the Charlotte Convention Center.

Metro School on South Davidson Street, was one of the first CMS schools to implement the composting program. In two years, Cafeteria Manager Janette Kinard said composting and recycling are now routine.

“They’re good at it,” she said. “You barely get any trash in the food bin.”

The school uses compost from Earth Farms Organics in its gardens, and last year students made salads from produce grown at school.

Kinard said the school has cut its lunchtime trash in half. The school used to dump the cafeteria trash twice a day, but now she said the bin isn’t full after the school’s two lunches.

Davis said students at Elizabeth Lane are catching on. The school’s been averaging about half a can of food waste a day from more than 900 students.

“I think they are very conscious about what goes in this bin because they remind each other,” Davis said.

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