What to do with all those leftovers

Burroughs pilots organics composting program

LYNNHURST — Principal Tim Cadotte arrived in the Burroughs Community School lunchroom wearing latex gloves, a full-length white apron and rubber boots and took his position in front of three large rubber waste containers.

Cadotte, along with his lunchroom and custodial staff, work the front lines of the school’s new organics composting program. The first wave of youngsters swarmed around him, depositing their lunch leftovers into the three bins marked “ORGANICS,” “TRASH” and “RECYCLABLES.”

“That goes in here,” he gently reminded one student, snatching a milk carton from his hands and tossing it in with the organics. A few drops of milk dribbled out and splattered on the floor.

“You can see now why I wear boots,” Cadotte said.

It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

It’s also a dirty job putting together a first-in-the-district program that aims to reduce the amount of organic waste heading from the school to the landfill. That’s where Burroughs parent Kate Seifert comes in.

Seifert said she was visiting Burroughs earlier this year when it struck her just how much of the school’s meals ended up in the trash.

“I looked in the cafeteria and thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s a load of waste,’” she remembered.

When she quizzed first her daughter and then the Burroughs assistant principal on lunchroom recycling efforts and learned there weren’t any to speak of, Seifert brought it up with some friends. She learned their children’s schools in the Edina district did recycle.

That led her to John Jaimez, an organics and recycling specialist with Hennepin County, which now has more than 50 schools in 8 metro-area districts involved in an organics composting program. Last school year, those 50 schools diverted nearly 500 tons of organic waste from the landfill to the compost heap, Jaimez said.

When combined with yard waste, the lunch leftovers biodegrade into compost over the course of about 18 months. The compost is used in landscaping projects, or as fill for road construction, he said.

Jaimez said organic waste makes up about 25 percent of our trash. In the landfill it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Hennepin County offers an incentive to keep organics out of the landfill, charging a lower “tipping fee” for separated organic waste than regular trash. The state also offers an exemption from the solid waste tax for organics, Jaimez added.

Seifert said she was working with the district to calculate the cost to Burroughs for participating in the organics composting program. She expected the state and county incentives would counter some of the increased costs that come with sorting all the lunchroom waste and using special biodegradable trash bags.

Her goal, she said, was to convince district officials the program could be expanded from Burroughs to the entire district.

“This was my big calling,”
Seifert said. “If I was going to volunteer to do something, this is it, because this is so important.”

Cadotte said the program not only made the school a little bit greener, it also was a learning experience for students. They could see the trash pile up over the course of a lunch period, and note how much would ultimately fester in a landfill.

“Which one of these kids is going to come up with a way to reuse all that plastic?” he asked, pointing out the nonrecyclable bits that ended up in the trash.

Both Cadotte and Seifert acknowledged there was one hurdle to overcome before the program could expand to other schools in the district. Some parent or principal or student at each site would have to monitor the garbage bins each day, just as Cadotte does.

“I’m going to bank on not too many people would want to do this,” Cadotte said while squeezing a half-eaten bean and cheese burrito from its non-recyclable plastic wrapper.

After a few weeks, though, it was almost like a game — How much can we recycle? — and
Cadotte was getting into it, maybe even enjoying it a little.

“I know it seems gross,” he said, “but I do.”