Composting to Begin on May 17 in John Glenn Middle School Cafeteria

May 3, 2023
JGMS will roll out a pilot composting program during lunch starting May 17th. Photo: Robert Dorer.

A pilot rollout of composting food waste in the lunch program at John Glenn Middle School is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, May 17. 

Erin Dorr, a part-time facilities/school employee, said there will be “sort of an assembly line” where students will encounter individual bins for depositing liquids, compostables, recyclables, and any remaining trash. Then students will leave their empty trays for washing.

“It’s a full collaboration between the school administration, food services, the DPW, and Facilities,” said Dorr. “We are really excited for the support we have received, and really excited to see how the kids react to it and how the project works.” 

The program will continue for the remaining five weeks of the school year, and over the summer organizers will compare before-and-after data and “really take inventory of what worked well and how can we make this sustainable not only at JGMS but also rolling it out at other schools,” Dorr said. “Ideally we will have a timeline for rollout at each.”

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“This concept has been in the works for a lot of years,” Dorr explained. Even five years ago, groups such as Mothers Out Front and the Girl Scouts were conducting “waste audits” in the cafeterias.

“We were really close in 2019-20 to getting full sorting in one of the schools. And then Covid happened,” and when school food service resumed, everything was individualized and disposable.” And some of the schools are still using food products in individual containers, Dorr added.

“Post-Covid school food service looks different, so we really have to reassess,” Dorr continued. She said she and Liz Antanavica, the Public Works Department’s refuse and recycling coordinator, have been examining data from the middle school: assessing what kind of trays are being used, the breakdown of reusable, recyclable, and traditional trash.

They prepared by observing practices in other school districts, and “we identified that using volunteers to run this type of a program – monitoring, making sure there is no cross-contamination – is not a sustainable process. Cost is going to be a factor.” Facilities Director Taissir Alani agreed: “Future funding will be required to cover all the schools.” 

The compost collected at JGMS will be picked up twice per week by Black Earth, the regional composting contractor.

Dorr pointed out that current school administrators have experience with the process – specifically, JGMS Principal Jonathan Hartunian at his former school in Belmont and Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad when he was principal of Andover High School. “They both have seen it work and they are both excited about it.”

Parents have been notified through email and announcements and students will learn the details in advisory sessions, Dorr said. “We are hoping to get some students to make posters of what falls into each category,” and record a video of other students carrying out the steps.

The regional composting contractor Black Earth will be collecting compostables twice a week from an on-site storage container at the middle school, she added.

“Somewhere upwards of 40 percent of trash can be diverted to liquid or compostable organics,” Dorr said. And the impetus for this to happen at JGMS is a statutory state waste policy that reduces allowable waste from campuses of a certain size to half a ton per week. Since the high school and middle school are considered a single campus by the state, “while we are still in compliance, we want to get some of these programs running in anticipation of tighter regulations.”

“There’s a lot of concern about how kids can manage this change. Our kids have been asking for this,” Dorr pointed out. “I’ve had parents reach out to me, saying, ‘My kids are trying to do recycling in school.’ A lot of seniors are going into environmental science. They’re very attuned to the same concerns we are dealing with. We don’t give kids enough credit. I saw it work in one kindergarten classroom.”

Dorr said she and Antanavica, along with some volunteers from local organizations, will handle the monitoring this spring. “We are not asking our teaching staff,” she stressed. “This is a Facilities and DPW project.” They will especially be watching out for cross-contamination. “If you put a plastic container into Black Earth compost, then technically that entire organic trash bag is contaminated.” 

The process will have to be tailored to the food service practices at each school, Dorr said. “I’m a big fan of testing, trying things out, and tweaking as needed.”

 “We have dishwashing machines in all of our schools, and we already have reusable trays. If those things are utilized, we can really reduce our waste,” Dorr said, noting that “there are still overall staffing concerns.”

At JGMS most of the trays are washable, Dorr said, but in the district, there is still some reliance on single-use plastic trays and utensils. “And they are priced at half or even less compared to the cost of their compostable/recyclable eco-friendly alternatives,” she acknowledged. “Yes, there’s a cost to real silverware.”

“I really had to change how I thought about this process,” Dorr acknowledged. “There were volunteers who wanted to go from the ground up, but it really works best from the top down.” NetZero is a town policy, she said, and “if Bedford says this is what we do as a district, each department needs to fall in line.”

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