PROVIDENCE – In the coming weeks, thousands of students will return to school. Some of these students will eat at school five days a week, Monday through Friday. Over the next year, students at public and private educational institutions will generate approximately 5 million pounds of organic food waste from lunches served in the cafeteria.
Most of the trash is what you’d expect: milk cartons and juice boxes, half-eaten cafeteria pizzas, sandwich crusts, and endless plastic wrap. Students will throw whatever remains of their lunches – finished or unfinished – into giant bins, which will then be transferred to larger dumpsters and ultimately shipped to the Johnston Central Landfill.
It’s not all half-eaten food, though – some of it is perfectly edible, perfectly salvageable food. According to an estimate from the Rhode Island Schools Recycling Club, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant-funded program dedicated to reducing school waste, schools could recover a total of 388 tons of fresh food and safe to eat for hungry students or locals. food banks each year.
In a state where 1 in 6 residents and 1 in 4 families with children are food insecure, waste is both literal and figurative.
RI Schools Recycling Club co-director Jim Corwin said he was amazed at how much food the program recovered.
“In the last school year, we diverted 13.6 tons of food [from the landfill] and recovered something like 1,600 pounds for local food shelters,” Corwin said. “We had very good success.”
Corwin runs the program with fellow co-director Chris Ratcliffe and organizing director Warren Heyman. They run what they call a “high touch” program: during the school year, they visit schools five days a week and teach teachers, cafeteria workers, custodians and students the ins and outs of outcomes of waste diversion from landfill.
Club schools are dividing cafeteria waste into six stations instead of a single group of waste barrels. First, unopened or uneaten food is placed on a “sharing table” to be collected, then students pour leftover liquids, such as milk or juice, into a separate container. Students then separate the recyclable materials from single-use plastic packaging and utensils, which are thrown into a traditional gray waste barrel that will eventually go to landfill.
Most organic food waste is divided in a compost bin and, depending on the school, is either transported by a composting company or the students actively compost it on site. Finally, the cafeteria trays themselves are separated and stacked for easier disposal in the trash.
“We do the heavy lifting, we go to the teachers and say, ‘It won’t take any more work from you, or if it does, let us know and we’ll help you out,'” Heyman said.
In July 2021, Governor Dan McKee signed into law the School Waste Recycling and Garbage Disposal Act. The bill requires schools to divert organic food waste from the landfill and requires school food service providers to donate any unserved, non-perishable or otherwise intact food to local food banks.
The law is due to take effect on January 1, 2023 and applies to any school that generates at least 30 tons of organic waste per year or is located within 15 miles of a composting or anaerobic digestion facility with the capacity to accept such waste. waste.
With composting facilities on Aquidneck Island and Charlestown, and a new digester facility open in Johnston, the law applies to virtually all schools within Rhode Island’s borders.
But the law is ultimately an unfunded mandate — the state has provided no additional funding for schools to comply with the law. And transporting garbage is not cheap. Corwin estimated compliance expenses could cost a small elementary school about $2,500 and a large high school about $4,000.
“Our goal is to go out there and find the best processes so other schools can follow them and make that cost neutral for schools,” Corwin said.
No matter what, the trash has to go somewhere, and Rhode Island is running out of room. The Johnston Central Landfill is expected to reach capacity no later than 2040, according to the latest estimates from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.
RRC officials told lawmakers at a Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee hearing earlier this year that by revising its pricing strategy, disposal volumes sent to the central landfill are increased from more than one million tonnes per year to 650,000 tonnes per year, pushing the capacity date from 2034 to 2040.
“What this means for Rhode Islanders cannot be underestimated. Six more years of landfill life is a game-changer,” said RRC Executive Director Joe Reposa. “This provides the time needed for landfill alternatives to mature in the market and for those viable alternatives to be adopted in the state.”
Part of the problem, according to Corwin and Heyman, is that food service workers serve too much food to students. A study by the RI Schools Recycling Club in 2019 showed that the average lunch weight in elementary, middle, and high schools was 1.1 pounds, meaning a 6 or 7-year-old child in first grade received the same amount of food as a teenager.
Elementary schools will generate 47 pounds of food waste per student annually. Middle schools will generate 39 pounds of waste per student, and high schools will generate the least, at 15.6 pounds per student.
Corwin and Warren received a grant from the EPA to continue their work for the upcoming school year, where they will retain the current four schools they work at, but also add four additional schools to be determined. They note that the new state law taking effect has no funding and there is no specific penalty.
“Just getting the word out is a challenge,” Corwin said. “We can’t manage 100 schools if they all call us at once, but we have to spread the word.”