Custodians go above ‘call of duty’ for composting programs

Dowling Elementary cafeteria
In the Dowling Elementary cafeteria, waste items are strung over the compost, recycling and trash bins. Photo by Mira Klein

It was soup day at Dowling Elementary. Head custodian Roger Bratsch knew when it came time to clean up that the compost bags would be heavy, weighed down by thick liquid leftovers.

In Dowling’s cafeteria, waste bins are arranged in the middle of the room, coded green for compost, blue for recycling and red for trash. There is signage carefully posted at elementary student eye level, complemented by a display of waste items strung overhead, each dangling over its respective receptacle.

Bratsch was giving a tour of Dowling’s lunchroom composting system, a process he oversees to divert and recycle the school’s organic waste.

In addition to lunchroom monitors, he is helped by a program of rotating ROT Rangers (Reduce Our Trash), students armed with trash pickers who stand by the waste bins and instruct their classmates on how to parse out each lunch remnant into the correct vessel. It is a responsibility the students enjoy, Bratsch attested, because “it gives them a chance to show a little authority.”

The tour, kept short due to the lunchroom’s chaotic atmosphere, shed light on the raucous conditions in which Roger must ensure that the compost bins stay relatively uncontaminated with non-organic waste.

In his 17-year-long career with the school district — six spent at Dowling — Bratsch has seen organics recycling become more refined over time.

Composting is just one part of a broader district effort to reduce food waste. As detailed in a Food Waste Action Plan commissioned through the Natural Resources Defense Council and published in January 2019, existing policies like giving students enough time to eat, scheduling recess before lunch and expanding student meal choice can make a big difference in reducing the amount of food waste produced in the first place.

The report also provided several recommendations for composting programs, including a directive to “standardize waste-sorting protocols across schools that have a composting program” and identifying a parent, student or administrator to serve as a “composting champion” at each school.

This recommendation is a far cry from current operational practice. Composting programs are run almost entirely independently from one another on a school-by-school basis, with a custodial worker often taking up the helm.

And operating school-wide organics recycling includes a slew of responsibilities besides waste-bin sorting.

Haydee Segovia is head custodian at Bancroft Elementary, just down the road from Dowling. She brought composting to the school four years ago, motivated in part by her upbringing on a farm where organics recycling was a staple. In her role at Bancroft, Segovia takes responsibility for creating and distributing educational materials for students, teachers and her custodial colleagues. She even goes so far as to make posters for each of the ten rotating school lunch meals detailing where each meal scrap should be placed.

Doug Hill, MPS director of plant operations, emphasized that what Bratsch and Segovia do for composting is not the norm, nor is it something that the district demands of them. “These guys are really going above the call of duty,” he said. “The nature of our employees is that they own the work.”

Workplace demands, including expectations around composting, are particularly relevant as custodial workers enter into the final stages of contract negotiations with MPS.

In December 2017, a group of 250 district custodial, operations and maintenance workers, filed for election to join SEIU Local 284. These workers used to be represented by the now-defunct SEIU 63, until they voted to leave the union in 2015 and formed the Minneapolis Association of Custodians and Engineers (MACE) in its stead. Unlike a union, however, an association like MACE did not have the internal structure set up to effectively support its members, according to SEIU Representative Aaron Janson.

The union was renewed, however, out of backlash to a district-wide reorganization plan in summer 2017 that re-categorized operations and custodial staff. As the Southwest Journal reported, this resulted in staff reductions and pay cuts to address a $28 million dollar school district budget deficit.

These labor negotiations highlight, perhaps unexpectedly, that composting and other sustainability programs must also traverse the muddy waters of custodial workloads and district-wide policy.

On the one hand, the current composting setup means that custodians are able to maintain a fair amount of independence and tailor each program to the particular conditions their school presents. On the other, composting programs rely on the onus of individual employees, who are already busied with the extensive list of responsibilities that it takes to keep a school humming.

A lack of communication between custodians from one school to the next further hinders these programs. Three or four years ago MPS custodians met regularly, Brastch said, but when the union fell apart, the meetings did, too. In this way, Bratsch and Segovia acknowledge that their Dowling-Bancroft friendship is unusual.

At a district level, Hill is taking steps to remedy this communication gap by organizing meetings to bring lead custodians from across MPS together to exchange ideas and best practices.

According to Janson, talking about labor issues in the context of composting is not about dismissing the importance of organics recycling. “But while we’re doing that,” he said, “let’s do right by these workers, too.”