Making Southwest’s composting program sustainable

In an email sent in early January, Southwest High School Green Team leaders announced the start of a composting program aimed at cutting the school’s trash production in half.

“It’s going to be a big change,” the email read, “but we want to turn our school into a more environmentally friendly and sustainable place for everyone.”

There may be new compost bins in the cafeteria, but this is not the first time that Southwest has tried its hand at organics recycling.

A previous iteration of the program was discontinued several years ago. Anna Smalley, a Southwest senior and co-president of the student-led Green Team, speculated that the old program ended due to a lack of student participation, miscommunication with school engineering staff and, ultimately, contamination of the compost itself — although she can’t say for sure.

Smalley and fellow Green Team leader Ayva Sloo identified lackluster student attitudes toward composting as a primary barrier to its wider adoption, even among the politically minded Generation Z cohort, which has taken climate activism by storm.

Engineering staff, too, identified student attitudes as a cause for skepticism over composting. As Smalley characterized their thought process: “Kids won’t even clean up their plates, how are they going to get this right?”

While the Green Team works to drum up participation among classmates, they find themselves caught between framing their work as a matter of urgency while simultaneously presenting an accessible entry point into the world of environmental activism.

“We want to do activism and we want to make it big,” Smalley said, noting that she also hoped to create “an easy place for people to learn about the environment.”

Student efforts to implement this composting program, however, have been far from easy.

January’s kickoff marked the culmination of three years of hard work. Smalley and Sloo were there to witness it all, slogging through Southwest’s administrative channels and district-wide bureaucracy. And alongside other long-time Green Teamers, they have emerged as a hardened force to be reckoned with.

As Smalley recalled, she and other Green Team members met with Southwest principal Michael Favor in the first week of the fall semester. Having already secured an organics recycling grant from Hennepin County, the meeting was about informing, not requesting. Or, as Smalley phrased it, “We’ll tell you what we need, but this is what we’re doing.”

Despite this determined approach, the process dragged out far longer than was promised, Smalley said. This was only made more frustrating because, as a student-led club, they had difficulty clarifying information with the district.

“Obviously we’re kids so they don’t answer our emails,” Sloo said.

For the Green Team, this meant several false starts and general confusion among peers, teachers and engineers.

These issues are hardly unique to Southwest’s composting endeavor.

On paper, the Southwest Green Team seems particularly well positioned to find composting success. Unlike most Green Teams, Southwest has the support of an adviser from the Community Education office, someone in a position to get answers from the school district when problems arise. Furthermore, as Sloo explained, many families in the disproportionately white and wealthy neighborhoods around Southwest compost at home already.

So how is it that despite this support from community families, despite a student body that is perhaps more familiar with composting than most, despite having specialized Green Team resources and despite receiving a grant from Hennepin County, the future of Southwest’s composting program is not guaranteed?

What has become apparent to the Southwest Green Team — and echoed by sibling Green Teams at other high schools throughout the city — is that there needs to be more thought given to long-term implementation support.

The Green Team at Edison High School in Northeast, for example, is also in the midst of implementing a school composting program. Edison’s program relies on a daily batch of student volunteers monitoring and directing their peers through the composting process — and giving up 10 minutes of their precious lunch break to do so. But this sacrifice has received pushback from within the Green Team itself. If even self-described environmentalists are resistant, as junior Emma Quale observed, “I’m not sure that education will be enough.”

From Quale’s perspective, student Green Teams will have to think beyond peer-to-peer education when it comes to supporting the long-term durability and efficacy of composting programs.

As Smalley suggested, this means paying greater attention to those at Southwest who actually bear a large chunk of the responsibility for moving organics from landfill to compost: school custodians and engineers.

In this way, the questions high school composters must face — questions of labor, compensation and status quo — are deeply connected to conversations held by youth everywhere from the Minnesota state Capitol to international environmental forums: how to upend a system where even well-intentioned environmental initiatives can end up burdening those who are already the most burdened.

Smalley, Sloo and the rest of the Southwest Green Team have a vested interested in taking these questions on. As they see it, a successful composting program holds significance far beyond their own club’s organizing efforts. “This is us showing our peers that things can get done,” Smalley said.

The next Green Digest column will explore the intersection of composting and labor with a greater focus on the words and experiences of school engineering staff themselves.