Compost 101: Ancillae-Assumpta Academy Does it Right

Got compost?

Mrs. Handel and Kindergartners, Ryan (left) and Charlie (right), compost in Ancillae-Assumpta's student dining hall.

Mrs. Handel and Kindergartners, Ryan (left) and Charlie (right), compost in Ancillae-Assumpta's student dining hall.

Ancillae-Assumpta Academy composts all of its dining room waste with support from their students and faculty.  Ancillae-Assumpta’s green initiatives include solar panels, school gardens, outdoor education, to name a few. However, the school decided to do even more. Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants lead facilitated meetings with the faculty and administration to identify sustainability goals. Food Service Coordinator Sarah Wade took on composting all food waste generated by students and staff.

Ancillae-Assumpta hired Organic Diversion as their commercial compost hauler. 

I recently caught up with Ancillae-Assumpta’s Sarah Wade and Organic Diversion’s Gail Rosati of Customer Relations to ask them to share their tips and lessons learned. Here are their “Five Steps” to make composting at your school or business easy, affordable, and educational for students and employees. 

1. Create a Green Team

Gather members across the community dedicated to your green mission.  It’s important to involve stakeholders from all areas related to the school: cafeteria, facilities, business office, faculty, staff and parents. Solicit information on the benefits of composting and align it with the school mission. According to Sarah: “Mary Ann and Anne provided us with the benefits of composting right away, and that helped us gather support from the school community.”

2.  Collect data! Conduct a waste audit

As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Conduct a waste audit to assess how much waste your school or business currently produces. Gail stresses the importance of understanding “the percentage of trash (landfill, recyclables, or organic waste) that is actually being thrown away.” She asks: “Is the trash full of recyclables or organic waste? How full are the trash bags? Are schools paying for half-full containers to be taken to the landfill?” Once you have the numbers, you can create an effective action plan.

Fun fact: According to Organic Diversion, when recycling is done correctly, waste costs are usually lowered by 20%.

3. Develop an Action Plan

Allow time for the Green Team to iron out the details: Where will the landfill, recycling and compost bins go in the cafeteria? What type of trash bags are you going to use? If you are using a commercial compost hauler, who is picking up the compost and how often? If you are composting on-site, where is the compost going to be located outdoors and who is going to construct the bins?

Both Sarah and Gail suggest color-coding waste bins: green for compost, blue for recycling, and gray or black for landfill. Create aesthetically pleasing, clear labels on the bins. Involve the students to create posters for the cafeteria. 

Tip: Reusable trash bags save plastic and money -- Ancillae-Assumpta reuses trash bags that contain paper/paper towels, dry items for a long time.

4. Educate the School Community

Teach students how to compost to make your program successful. Keep the message simple. Gail notes, “If you can eat it, you can compost it!” Commercial composters like Organic Diversion can compost all food waste, including meat, bones and fats. If compost is on-site at a school or business, then keep it limited to fruit and vegetable scraps. Add wood chips or newspaper to strike the balance of “greens” and “browns” to help with the decomposition process.

Students at Ancillae-Assumpta watched a presentation by Organic Diversion explaining how to compost, and teachers continually work to include composting in the science curriculum.

Monitor the composting process. An adult or student volunteer can assist students to ensure they are placing the correct items in each bin. “Oversight is the most important part of having a successful compost program. You can create wonderful signs and containers, but without oversight, the compost program doesn’t do well,” notes Gail.

Tip #1: Play sorting games with your students and have them take ownership of the compost’s success. A group of students at Ancillae-Assumpta created a composting app where gamers quickly sort flying items into the correct trash bin!

Tip #2: Remove single-serve disposable ketchup, salt, and pepper packets from the cafeteria to prevent plastic wrappers contaminating the compost. Try bulk dispensers instead!

5. Start composting

“Composting takes a little extra work,” reflects Sarah, “But the kids are aware of how much we waste, and now they’re taking less food.”  “The biggest challenge,” adds Gail, “can be getting them to understand that in addition to the educational and environmental benefits, composting can save money. They just need to take a good look and analyze.”

Tip: If your school has a garden or outdoor habitat, use your new and recycled compost as fertilizer for healthy growing!

Did you know: Americans throw away almost half of our total food supply? Creating cafeteria compost decreases waste in landfills. In September alone, Sarah and Ancillae-Assumpta Academy converted 1,680 pounds of food waste to valuable compost.  “This is just the beginning,” notes Sarah, “Of thinking in ways that we can tread lightly on our planet and continue to educate our students to do the right thing.”

Written by Cheyenne Pritchard, a recent Amherst College graduate, a Fulbright Scholar about to embark to Brazil, and intern at Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants.