City and Schools partner to engage students in the sustainable

disposal of lunch waste at four K-8 Schools 


SOMERVILLE, MA – In Somerville, City and school staff recently teamed up to launch a pilot program to overcome some cafeteria recycling challenges and also add composting to the mix. Nearly two tons of paper materials are recycled each week across Somerville Public Schools, but recycling cafeteria waste is more challenging in a grade-school environment. No matter how well kids sort their materials, inevitably milk, juice, and food scraps find their way into the bins. Then the contaminated recyclables get rejected for pickup and land in the trash after all. The pilot program seeks to change this.

Starting this week and next, when students at four Somerville K-8 schools enter the cafeteria, they’ll find buckets for draining liquids from bottles and juice boxes as well as clear recycling bins so everyone can see the difference between the recycling and trash bins. They’ll also find compost receptacles where they can recycle all of their leftover food (meat included) as well as the cafeteria’s compostable lunch trays. Composting company Garbage to Garden will pick up the compost and haul it to Rocky Hill Farm in Saugus, where it will be turned into compost.

“Somerville is a city filled with residents eager to do what they can for the environment, and it’s important we give our youngest residents the opportunity to learn about and take part in environmental stewardship too. So it’s great to see the City and Schools make this pilot take shape,” said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone.

Garbage to Garden staff are partnering with school Principals and staff to hold assemblies on introducing the new waste disposal process. To help students learn the new drill, School Sustainability Champions and Food and Nutrition Services Staff at each school will also support the transition. As part of a separate effort, the City’s Office of Sustainability worked with every school in the district to identify a staff member to serve as the School Sustainability Champion to lead recycling efforts in their building. The program is funded in part by a $30,000 grant from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which has also been used to purchase additional recycling equipment and educational materials to support standardization of single-stream recycling across the school district.

“We’re excited to be moving forward on expanding sustainability practices in our district. Not only does this effort ensure that we are doing our part to reduce waste through environmentally friendly practices, it also provides us with the opportunity to create a ripple effect by fostering these habits among our students,” said Superintendent of Schools, Mary Skipper.

Aside from the environmental and educational benefits, the pilot should reduce solid waste disposal costs for the city. Garbage to Garden, which is based in Portland, ME, also picks up compost from a number of Maine schools that have seen a significant drop in school solid waste as a result. City and school officials anticipate a substantial reduction in the Somerville schools as well.

“Recycling may seem so simple, but this took a real team effort and some creative thinking,” said Oliver Sellers-Garcia, Director of the Office of Sustainability and Environment, which spearheaded the pilot with the support of the School District, the Department of Public Works, the Food and Nutrition Services Department, the Board of Aldermen, and the School Committee.

“What we see in so many sustainability efforts is that we need to make the system easy and intuitive for the user,” said Sellers-Garcia. “So making it easy for kids to empty their bottles and juice boxes and toss food scraps away right along with the tray—all with support and mentorship from Sustainability Champions and school staff—will help our youngest recyclers adapt quickly to the new routine. Each school is a little bit different. Tailoring the cafeteria disposal process to each school’s physical layout and educational program is key to success.”

The program soft-launched this week at the Kennedy and Healey school cafeterias and will launch officially there and at the Brown and Argenziano schools on October 1. After learning what works and what doesn’t in the pilot locations, the plan is to expand it across the school district.

“This program demonstrates how each sustainability step we take allows us to eventually do even more,” said Mayor Curtatone. “We started in the schools with recycling paper, then moved onto single-stream for other recyclables, and along the way we banned Styrofoam containers citywide forcing ourselves to introduce compostable lunch trays. All of that led us to this important program. I’m looking forward to what we can do together next.”

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