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Composting Program Reduces Waste and Saves Money

Bellingham (Wash.) School District learns a few tips.
School custodians have less trash to throw into the dumpsters.


Sometimes you don’t know you have a problem until someone shows how you could do something better. That was the case with waste management in the Bellingham (Wash.) School District’s food service operation. Students in the district did what many students do when they are finished with their lunch—throw everything still on their trays into the garbage. But when a representative from the district’s waste hauling company showed the food service manager that a composting program could drastically reduce the amount of garbage produced in the cafeterias, and at a reduced cost, the manager realized that the district’s current garbage collection system was inadequate.


Rodd Pemble, recycling manager of Sanitary Service Company (SSC) in Whatcom County, Wash., wanted to try a composting program in schools whose waste collection was already handled by SSC. He approached Brett Greenwood, food service manager of the Bellingham district at the time, who was immediately interested. Greenwood then sold the idea of a pilot program to administrators and principals. The district would save money through composting because of the lower rate for hauling compost—$12 per cubic yard versus $15 for garbage.

But Greenwood and Pemble knew that they would have to win over custodians. They held a meeting for all the custodians in the district to explain their composting plan. The key to this meeting, says Pemble, was asking for volunteers to participate in the pilot program. By volunteering, the custodians themselves decided in which schools the pilot program would take place. Custodians who were unsure about the program were not forced to participate. “By starting with individuals who wanted to do the program, we were almost guaranteed to have success,” explains Pemble.

Students can now empty liquids, compostables, waste, and recyclables into the proper containers.

After the pilot program proved successful, composting was expanded to other elementary schools. By the end of the 2006-2007 school year, 12 out of 13 elementary schools were composting.

The next year, composting was introduced to the district’s four middle schools, and then to its three high schools in 2008-2009. This system of rollouts meant that in each middle and high school there was one grade of students who had done composting at their previous school. This was important, says Mark Dalton, the district’s current food service manager, because “older students are the hardest to train.”

Benefits All Around

From 2006, when the pilot program began, through the 2008-2009 school year, the district diverted over 800,000 pounds from the waste stream, resulting in a net savings of $53,000. Even with the extra the district spends now that it uses paper products instead of Styrofoam, it still comes out ahead.

But the benefits are more than financial. Students learn about the science of composting and about being responsible consumers. The community devotes less space to landfills. And the individual schools benefit from the compost itself, which the district buys back for landscaping.

From Garbage to Compost

The first step the Bellingham district took was to eliminate as many noncompostable materials as possible. To a large degree, this meant using paper instead of Styrofoam. It also meant switching from flat trays to slotted trays in elementary schools.

The next step was educating students about composting and training them to toss their refuse into separate containers. Custodians were key in this effort, and many of them spent the initial weeks of the program standing by the containers and instructing students on what should be tossed where. In some of the elementary schools, students in a fifth-grade mentoring program coached their younger peers on how to separate their lunchroom waste.

Don Parker-Burgard is associate editor.