- Author: Deborah Schnur
Ever since Senate Bill 1383 took effect earlier this year, local governments and organizations across California have been scrambling to develop strategies to recycle organic waste. Schools are no exception. As I discussed in my February blog, SB 1383 requires our state to reduce organic waste disposal by 75% and increase edible food recovery by 20% by 2025 (relative to 2014 levels). California schools and universities generate over 560,000 tons of waste per year according to CalRecycle. While implementing programs to reduce and recycle waste, schools are in a unique position to teach youth about a wide variety of environmental topics including resource conservation, composting, and food rescue.
A good way for schools to start developing a waste handling strategy is to conduct a waste audit. The main goal is to characterize the type, quantity, and source of materials being discarded. An audit is often part of a more comprehensive assessment to evaluate school district policies and procedures that affect waste generation. In 2014, CalRecycle performed a waste characterization study using 45 samples from K-12 schools. The study showed that the largest components of the waste stream were organics (50.8%), paper (31.4%), and plastic (12.7%). The organics category included food, plant material, and some textiles.
I recently helped Cassidy Furnari, the Upland School District Farm to School Program Manager, conduct a lunchtime cafeteria waste audit at Upland High School. The Farm to School Program is part of the Nutrition Services Department, which is concerned about food waste and cost. Cassidy and I recruited members of the school garden club, GRO (Grow Recycle Organize), to participate in the audit to empower them to promote change on campus. The students are currently preparing to present their results at an upcoming Board of Education meeting.
The first step we took in planning our waste audit was to write a brief project plan. To keep the project manageable, we decided to perform an audit during a typical 30-minute lunch period. Upland High School has over 3000 students who all eat at the same time. Only seniors are allowed to leave campus during lunch.
To avoid influencing student behavior, we didn't make any major changes to the meal service or trash disposal. Rather than asking students to sort their own waste, we placed distinctive purple liners inside existing trash containers shortly before the lunch period. The week before the audit we counted over 90 trash containers in the areas where students eat lunch.
During the planning process, we informed and consulted with the school administration, cafeteria staff, custodial staff, and parents of the garden club members. We also asked for help from our friends at the Community Composting for Green Spaces Grant Program to tap into their experience with waste audits.
To design our data collection sheets, we considered what questions we wanted to answer. What is the total weight of the waste? How much of the waste is food, paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass? How much can be composted or recycled? How much uneaten cafeteria food can be recovered? By answering these questions and others, we can help the Nutrition Services Department make more sustainable and economical food purchasing and packaging decisions.
After a month of planning, the big day of the waste audit finally arrived on March 9th. Our team consisted of nine people from Upland Farm to School and Community Composting for Green Spaces. Our first tasks were placing purple bags in the trash receptacles and setting up a staging area to sort the waste. Before we knew it, the lunch period had come and gone, and the hard work of collecting the bags and sorting the waste began. Sorting was much messier and more tedious than I had expected, especially since we had over 30 waste categories. The garden club members joined us after school to help count, weigh, and record the items in different waste categories. We eventually finished tallying the results and cleaning up six hours after we started. It was a long day!
What did we learn from our waste audit? Although we're still analyzing the results, we've already answered our initial questions. The total waste generated in a single lunch period was 370 lbs. The two largest types of waste material by weight were food (63%) and paper (19%), and more than 80% of the waste was compostable or recyclable. Students threw away over 200 pieces of uneaten whole fruit and 40 unopened cartons of milk, which potentially could have been recovered. Every question we answer gives rise to new questions and new ways to examine the data. We're already thinking about performing a waste audit at an elementary school to see how the waste profile compares.
I hope this story inspires you to support waste reduction, recycling, and recovery efforts in your local schools. Stay tuned for an update on my journey into school waste auditing in a future blog!
 CalRecycle. School Waste Reduction Programs. https://calrecycle.ca.gov/recycle/schools
 CalRecycle. School Waste Composition. https://calrecycle.ca.gov/recycle/schools/composition
- Author: Deborah Schnur
Debbie Schnur, UCCE San Bernardino County Master Gardener and Community Education Specialist
When I lived in Minnesota, fall was my least favorite time of year. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the changing colors of the leaves or the crisp fall air. I just dreaded the coming winter with its barrage of snowstorms and minus 30 degree wind chills. By the time December arrived, the sun set at 4:30 pm, and I felt like I was living in constant twilight.
Since I moved to southern California, I actually look forward to fall and the changes the season brings to the inland valleys–strong Santa Ana winds, refreshing rains, cooler days and even cooler nights, and leaves gradually turning subtle shades of brown, gold, and orange. Fall actually feels like a relief from the long, hot, dry summer. It's time to plant lettuce, spinach, peas, radishes, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower once again, and worry less about watering and maintenance.
One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is composting. When I was a FoodCorps service member at Phelan Elementary, my students used to call me “Ms. Debbie the Garden Lady”. Now I'm becoming known as “Ms. Debbie the Compost Lady”! Not everyone is as excited as I am about composting, but I can't think of a better way to build community while building soil. In October, I gave an online presentation for the San Bernardino Master Gardeners titled “Composting for School and Community Gardens”. If you missed it, you can watch the video on the UCCE San Bernardino YouTube channel. The presentation covers the basics of composting and development of the Root 66 Community Garden composting systems.
The main difference between backyard composting and school and community composting is scale. More compost means a bigger composting system and more people to manage it. As stated in the Institute for Local Self-Reliance report, Community Composting Done Right, “the distinguishing feature of community composting is retaining organic materials as a community asset and scaling systems to meet the needs of a self-defined community while engaging, empowering, and educating the community.”
Although larger scale composting requires additional planning and organization, it can be a tremendously rewarding project for everyone involved. The main steps to begin composting include setting goals, identifying a team, developing a management plan, selecting and designing a site, and choosing a system. Once composting is underway, the focus shifts to collecting and managing the materials and managing the process and site. Connecting with experienced composters to share best practices will increase your chances of success. There's a wealth of composting expertise in the Inland Empire!
You may be wondering if it's a good idea to start composting in the fall or winter, and the answer is yes. Any time is a good time. As temperatures dip, simply insulate your compost pile with browns such as mulch or leaves to keep the interior warm. You can also cover the pile with a tarp and turn it less often (if at all). The decomposition process may slow down but will continue throughout the winter.
A new composting project I want to highlight is the Green Ambassadors program at Captain Leland F. Norton Elementary School in San Bernardino. The principal, Elizabeth Cochrane-Benoit, and I met during Master Gardener training and worked together to build the composting system at the Root 66 Garden this past year. Norton Elementary has been recognized as a 2021 California Green Ribbon School at the Silver level and is aiming to reach the Green Achievers level. The Green Ribbon Schools Awards Program honors achievement in reducing environmental impact, improving health and wellness, and providing effective environmental education.
Sixth grade students in the Green Ambassadors program are learning how to audit their cafeteria waste and sort it into recycling, compost, and trash bins. Once they've mastered the process, they'll teach it to the rest of the school. The Community Composting for Green Spaces program (funded by CalRecycle) will help transfer the food waste in the compost bins to local gardens for composting. At a recent lunchtime audit, the fourth and sixth grade classes filled a 17-gallon container with uneaten food. I can't wait to see how much waste Norton Elementary teachers and students divert from landfills in the coming months!
What gardening and environmental projects do you have planned this fall and winter? Do you need support? If so, contact me at dschnur@ucanr. Happy composting!
Used coffee grounds are abundantly available for the asking at your local coffee shop. But just because the item is free, is it beneficial for composting?
Compost your coffee -
Coffee grounds add nitrogen to the compost, but as fertilizer they do not add nitrogen immediately to the soil. About 2% nitrogen by volume, used coffee grounds are a safe substitute for nitrogen-rich animal products. A study at Oregon State University showed that when composted, coffee helps sustain high temperatures in compost piles, in contrast with manure, which doesn't sustain the heat as long. When grounds made up 25 percent of the volume of a compost pile, temperatures stayed between 135 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two weeks. High composting temperatures help reduce potentially dangerous pathogens and kill seeds from weeds and vegetables that have been added to the compost. In the OSU study two weeks was sufficient time to kill a significant portion of both pathogens and seeds. When composting coffee, remember that grounds are considered green material, so balance your mix by adding an equal amount of brown material, like dried leaves, shredded cuttings, or paper.
Using coffee as mulch -
Fresh coffee grounds are acidic, but used coffee grounds are neutral when added to the soil. The acid in coffee beans is mostly water soluble, so it leaches into the coffee we drink. After brewing, the grounds are between 6.5 and 6.8 pH, so they won't affect the soil acidity. Coffee grounds can be used as mulch. Adding this organic matter to the soil improves drainage, water retention and aeration. Coffee grounds also help keep slugs and snails away from plants.
An additional benefit of composting grounds is diverting them from the landfill. And recycling coffee shop grounds fosters interactions between community residents and local businesses.
For more on composting, and the benefits of recycling coffee grounds see UCANR Master Gardener Tip Sheet, Composting is Good for Your Garden and the Environment, and the links used as reference, below:
Composting With Coffee Grounds – Used Coffee Grounds for Gardening, from gardeningkowhow.com
Coffee Grounds Perk Up Compost Pile with Nitrogen, from Oregon State University