Composting for Schools
Food scrap composting in school can provide opportunities to educate students about natural resources and help the environment. Composting provides opportunities for hands-on curriculum connections and interdisciplinary learning for science, math, social studies, language arts and more.
School composting provides an opportunity for students to take responsibility for the solid waste stream at school. It empowers students by giving them specific actions to help their community and the environment.
Explore this section for best practices and resources to start composting food scraps at your school.
Download the Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois Schools a project of the Wasted Food Action Alliance that was developed by IFSC Gold Sustaining Partner, Seven Generations Ahead, in collaboration with partners from the Wasted Food Action Alliance.
How Illinois schools compost food
Schools play a key role in:
• reducing food waste
• recovering/donating food
• recycling/composting food scraps
• educating students about managing food waste
Take a look at and download the Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois Schools.
STEP 1 – MEASURE WHERE FOOD SCRAPS OCCUR
Understand where food waste is occurring and what the disposal practices are for the school. Use this information to identify opportunities and challenges for composting.
• In how many locations is food service provided (kitchens, lunchroom, classrooms, etc)?
• Which food scraps will be composted?
Back of house: Pre-consumer kitchen food scraps and/or
Front of house: Post-consumer food scraps – plate/tray scrapings in the lunchroom.
Pre-consumer food scraps are more easily composted because it is fairly simple to train kitchen employees about proper separation techniques. Many food service providers already have kitchen staff measuring and recording food waste to minimize waste and save costs. Post-consumer food composting may require additional monitoring by trained staff to reduce the risk of contamination.
• Are food scraps currently thrown away with the garbage and going to a landfill? If so, how much trash is being generated and how often is it collected? There are industry estimates to help estimate how much of this is food scraps. Another way to estimate the amount of food waste generated is to measure all of the scraps produced in each area during a typical week and project this amount over time.
STEP 2 – DETERMINE ONSITE or OFFSITE COMPOSTING
Decide whether to collaborate with an off-site composting operation or to build an internal, on-site program. Two general options exist for composting food waste once it’s been diverted from school trash: 1) transport the material off-site to an approved composting facility or 2) establish an on-site composting operation. There are costs and benefits to each option.
On-site: Composting Bins/Tumblers; Vermicomposting
Off-site: Commercial composting
To learn more about commercial composting businesses that provide service in your area, please see our page on Haulers and Processors.
STEP 3 – DESIGN COLLECTION SYSTEM
The system for separating compostable’s at the source (kitchen, lunchroom, etc) and transporting the materials to a collection point (dumpster, carts, loading dock, etc) is a vital part of any school food scrap composting program. It should be as convenient as possible. The primary objectives of the collection system are to:
• Maximize the capture rate of compostable materials
• Allow students to quickly sort materials without taking away from their allotted time to eat
• Eliminate non-organic contaminants such as plastic bags, chip bags, Polystyrene, glass, and metal
• Minimize labor and space requirements
Collection systems in schools vary according to the specific needs of each, space limitations, and general layout of kitchens and lunchrooms.
STEP 4 – PARTNERSHIPS
Building a successful food scrap composting program relies on collaboration across many areas. The key partners that support the successful launch and maintenance of a composting program can include school administration, teachers, food service providers, custodial staff, haulers, compost processors, procurement and more. Each will play a role in launching and ensuring the success of your program.
What can be composted
The list below represents materials commonly accepted in commercial compost collection programs. Schools should always get a detailed list from their chosen service provider, as these items can vary from processor to processor.
- spoiled fruits and vegetables
- day-old bread and pastries, excess batter, spoiled bakery products
- dairy products-cheese, yogurt, ice cream
- miscellaneous by-products
- floral waste and trimmings/plants
- leftovers that cannot be served again
- frozen foods
- coffee grounds/filters
- tea bags
- eggshells/ cartons
- meat trimmings (some facilities prohibit the inclusion of large bones or bulk quantities of grease, oils, and fats in the compost. Although these products are biodegradable, they are slow to decompose and may attract rodents or other animals. Local renderers are a better choice for handling significant quantities of this type of material)
Compostable Food Service Products
- biodegradable service ware
- paper trays
- paper food wrappers
- napkins/paper towels
- wet or lightly waxed corrugated cardboard
- paper plates and cups
Common Contaminants – NOT COMPOSTABLE
- foil wrappers
- Polystyrene foam
- plastic gloves
- plastic utensils (forks, spoons, knives, plates, cups, stir sticks, lids, etc.)
- single-serve containers (condiments, cream, etc.)
- plastic and wire ties
- plastic food wrap
How much composting will cost
The cost of institution composting varies based on a number of factors:
– amount of food waste to be composted
– local infrastructure and pricing for hauling and composting
Amount of food waste to be composted – Before calling service providers, estimate volume/weight: One way to estimate the amount of food waste generated is to measure all of the scraps produced in each area during a typical operation week and project this amount over time.
Pricing – Disposal costs are usually billed to institutions by the cubic yard (a volume measurement). This may be based on container size and frequency of collection, or might be a direct measure of the weight of the food scraps:
Standard container sizes and their volume capacity include:
5- gallon container – .025 cubic yards
30-gallon container – .15 cubic yards
55-gallon container – .27 cubic yards
Volume-to-weight conversions for food waste vary considerably, depending on the type of food and its moisture content. If trash disposal at your institution is measured and billed by the ton, a standard container filled with representative samples of your institution’s food waste should be filled, then weighed for an approximate conversion between volume and weight.
Cost savings on purchase of finished compost – You can often negotiate beneficial arrangements with a composting operation in exchange for providing your institution’s feedstock to them. For instance, if there is an annual giveaway of finished compost by a municipal program, your institution may be able to receive an amount of finished compost proportionate to the raw material supplied. A common arrangement with companies who sell their finished product is to buy the finished compost back at a reduced rate. Your institution may also be able to arrange “custom composting” where the processor creates the type of finished compost best suited for your needs (i.e. large, unscreened material for erosion control, finely screened material for flower beds, or compost blended with topsoil for landscaping).
Start composting checklist - IFSC EATS How to Guide
Engage staff and managers
- Talk with the principal or high decison-making body early on in the process. Buy in from the top is vital.
- Do you have a Green Team that could take care of some of the research or planning tasks outlined below?
- Consider appointing a compost Champion to be the point-person. This helps ensure the longevity and success of your program.
- As with any operational change, your compost program will be more successful with buy-in from your employees. Get key employees involved early on in the process and make sure your compost goals are clear.
Ask Questions (Do Research)
- Contact your garbage/recycling company. Ask them if they offer a compost program (sometimes called “food scrap” or “organics” programs)
- Research other options. If your garbage company does not offer compost collection, see the list of compost haulers. You might consider changing your waste and recycling hauler to one company that provides all three services in order to secure package pricing.
- When they do offer compost services, here are some questions to ask:
- The Essentials
- What size containers/bins do you offer for composting?
- How frequently will the contianers/bins be picked up?
- Will all containers/bins (Landfill, Recycling, and Compost) fit in the current dumpster area?
- What is the cost of the service? Will this cost be offset by an equivalent decrease in garbage pickup frequency/cost?
- When are you available for a walkthrough so I can assess how to set up a compost program for my business operations.
- Additional Questions
- What type of food items are acceptable? Cooked food? Meat? Bones?
- What type of non-food items are acceptable? Napkins? Paper service ware? BPI certified compostable products?
- What compost related services do they offer (indoor bins, signage, staff training, waste audits)?
- Is using a specific type of bin liner (compostable bags) required?
- Are there other customers in the area with a compost program?
- The Essentials
Tee It Up (Prepare for Launch)
- Do a walk-through with your service provider and key staff members. Have a rep from the compost company see your business in action. Determine the following details:
- Discuss common food scrap discards. List the type of food scraps and leftovers common business. Meat scraps? Bones? Fruit peels? Vegetable scraps?
- Discuss common non-food compostables. List other items commonly discarded that your program will accept. These often include: napkins, paper towels, waxed paper, and paper plates/cups.
- Identify key locations of food scrap generation (such as prep and dishwashing stations). Make sure there is room to place compost, recycling, and trash containers and signage in each of these locations.
- Set up signs and containers. Below are tips to set you up for success!
- Start your compost program in the back-of-house areas first, where you have more control over operations, and then add front-of-house once your employees are up to speed.
- Create visual and color-coded signage. Include actual photos of the recyclables, compostables, and landfill items generated at your business. Have signs in multiple languages. The color-coding below is the most common and is recommended for all signage.
- Make sure signs are placed at eye-level directly above the containers to which they apply.
- Cluster the containers. Always position the three bins together in “stations” to ensure proper items are placed in the correct bins. If you have multiple stations, set them all up in the same order. The arrangement displayed is in order of priority with compost first, recycle second, and landfill last in line! You will have more success if the compost bin is always paired with recycling and landfill bins. A lone-standing compost container is likely to be treated as a general trash can!
- Increase food scrap collection points by placing small counter-top collection containers that are transferred to larger collection points.
- Train your staff. Have a compost training and make it fun and engaging! Here are some ideas for you
- Hold a special training session on composting. Here’s a training slideshow you can use. Connect them to the “why” of composting. Tell them what goes where and then have them put it into practice with a “compost relay” either through a PowerPoint presentation or an actual relay where employees physically sort items into the three bins.
- Designate a team leader for each work area to guide and remind staff of the proper way to sort.
- Have “pop quizzes” at the beginning of each shift to ensure employees know what is compostable and what is not.
- Have monthly goals on pounds composted. Share results with a compost “thermometer” posted in the kitchen or employee area of the progress made. Reward staff when the goal is reached.
- Frequently share information with employees on common items improperly placed in the compost bin. What non-compostable items are you finding in the compost bins?
Shoot for the Stars (Next Steps)
- Decrease garbage service. Collecting compost separately means less stuff going into your garbage dumpster. Assess periodically and decrese the size and/or pickup frequency of your garbage container and save $$!
- Monitor contamination. Have your Green Team or Compost Champion periodically check the compost containers for items that shouldn’t be there such as plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and latex gloves.
- Expand and improve the program.
- Continually gather advice from employees on how the signs and containers are set up around the restaurant. They are your most frequent users, and their feedback is invaluable!
- If you started with back-of-house collection, expand to front-of-house.
- Do you have other locations in your district where this program might be a success?
- Advertise your program! Post signage announcing your compost program. Employees and parents will be impressed by your green efforts. A recent survey showed that 71% of Americans consider the environment when they shop.
- Get recognized. Consider pursuing these certifications and awards:
- Join the We Compost program
- Take the EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge
- Apply for a Governor’s Sustainability Award
- Pursue Green Business Certification (IGBA)
- Close the loop! Purchase finished compost to use on your landscape and planters or give some finished compost to your employees as a thank you.
This program is made possible through the generosity of the Serle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust.
Zero Waste Schools - IFSC Sustaining Partner Spotlight
Don’t miss the Zero Waste Schools tab at Seven Generations Ahead HERE.
Zero Waste Lunchrooms: The How and Why of Reducing Waste in Your School Lunchroom
Presented by: Susan Casey, Zero Waste Schools Program Manager, Seven Generations Ahead
Schools can generate a lot of waste, especially in their lunchrooms and kitchens. In this webinar, you will learn how to plan and implement waste reduction strategies in your school lunchroom, including waste prevention, recycling, composting, and food recovery/donation. The webinar will focus on the operational changes as well as the education needed to make the strategies successful. Special focus will be given to food waste reduction options, including share tables and donations to food pantries. This webinar will be helpful to anyone interested in reducing waste in their school or district, and many schools that have implemented recycling and commercial composting programs have been able to divert 85% or more from landfills. Get your school on a path to zero waste– and engage students in the process.
After this webinar, attendees will have learned:
- How to plan and implement waste reduction strategies in their school lunchrooms and kitchens
- The benefits (environmental, financial, social, and educational) of reducing school lunchroom waste
- Ideas for educating and engaging students in your school’s path to zero waste
- Where to find resources and tools for a zero waste lunchroom
Recycling & Commercial Composting (with optional signs for Share Table and Tray-Stacking): This set of signs is used in a number of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) with commercial composting service. Lunchroom recycling requires a bucket or bin for collecting leftover liquid, since all drink containers must be empty in order to be recycled. Stacking plates significantly reduce the volume they take up, as well as the number of times the custodian needs to change the landfill bags. Note: The cardboard plates used in CPS are compostable in commercial composting facilities. If your school has commercial composting service, the stacked plates can be added to the compost bin at the end of each lunch period. If your school does not have a commercial composting service, the plates should be added to the Landfill bin. Click here for dual language signs (English/Spanish)