by Roger Lohr
Thetford Elementary School (TES) in Thetford, VT received a 93% for recycling and composting efforts by representatives of the Natural Resource Recovery Association who assessed systems at the school to reduce waste. On a visit to the school, arranged by the TES Composting and Recycling Committee I saw the school’s efforts in action and discussed their composting program.
Students are an integral part of TES’s waste reduction programs, which is supported by a half-dozen adults at the school. Students collect unbleached paper towels, which make up 96% of classroom waste and use them as carbon material for the compost system. The other components of trash at the school such as cafeteria leftover food, liquid, bottles, cans and paper are valuable recyclable assets in the overall program, which includes a composting program on school property. Why do they do it? The program shows how the community can work together, be responsible consumers, reduces the waste stream, and incorporates student learning in environmental science, chemistry, sociology, economics, math, and communication in the process.
How can other schools set up similar on-site composting systems? Set up a meeting of stakeholders including the members of administration, faculty, kitchen staff, custodians, students, and interested parents. A representative of Highfields Composting Co., a consulting company in Hardwick, VT, was brought to the Thetford school and a $5,000 grant was written to and accepted from the Wellborn Ecology Fund. The funds covered initial costs including the consultant’s fee for startup and technical advice, some faculty professional development curriculum work associated with composting, and materials to construct the composting bins.
The key ingredients to a successful composting program include: building compost bins to keep critters out, using recipes with food scraps to provide a balance of carbon and nitrogen, moisture, density, and porosity; getting the adults and students actively involved; installing a roof above the compost bin area; and finding participating partners for materials.
The elephant in the room is whether the compost smells or attracts rodents. The TES composting system proved that when done correctly these are not problems. The school has about 250 adults and students. There are five wooden bins each measuring about 16 square feet (4 by 4) that are insulated with foam board on the outside and have a top that lifts with a rope-and-pulley system. The front side of each bin is removable so it is easy to move the materials from one bin to the next. Some stirring of materials is necessary. Five gallon buckets of feedstock including food scraps, horse manure, sawdust, and paper towels are dumped and layered in one of the bins (using a 3:1 ratio of materials to food). A thermometer is used to monitor the temperature of the middle of the material pile in the compost bin. Upon reaching 160 degrees Fahrenheit the material pile is moved to the next bin and that transport mixes and aerates the compost, which cures in about a month when the original materials are no long identifiable.
Students bring buckets of paper towels from each classroom to a central area and food scraps from the school lunch program are collected. The students are taught to use an IPad (remember this is an elementary school) to keep all the pertinent information about the composting process. A small team of students get the job done and new students rotate on to the team and are taught the particulars from the other students. The TES waste reduction annually saves about $2,000 in trash hauling fees. The compost has been used for more than a dozen gardens on school property and some of the additional compost will be sold.
The analysis of school waste revealed that paper towels represented 96% of classroom waste and the idea to reuse it as feedstock in the composting system reduced the amount of trash enormously and repurposed the towels without emitting any gas or carbon in the landfill to dispose of it. TES is an exemplar for other schools, and is to be commended for their environmental concern and actions to control their waste.