By Kim Howard
When students at Champlain Valley Union High School laid out and sorted through a day’s worth of school trash last fall, some of them were surprised by what they found.
The total weight of what was headed to a landfill: 533 pounds. What should have been heading to a landfill: 191 pounds.
“It was surprising for us,” said CVU High School senior Mackenzie Pierson, president of the school’s environmental club.
Roughly 113 pounds of recycling – such as milk and water bottles – had gone into the trash. Food scraps, paper napkins and other materials that could be composted weighed in at 229 pounds.
“We didn’t expect to get that much compost,” Pierson said. “We figured out the school was wasting a lot of money by having all this heavy compost and recycling go into the trash.”
Starting this spring, students in the Environmental Club, advised by teacher Dave Ely, and students enrolled in Sarah Strack’s environmental science course have put a dent in the waste sent to the landfill weekly with the start of a student-run composting program.
Each day, students bring two clean 64-gallon garbage bins into the kitchen and cafeteria, and then remove them after lunch periods. Once a week, the compost is picked up by a commercial hauler and taken to the Intervale to be composted.
Though conceptually it’s a good idea to compost on site, CVU junior Kayla Gatos said, it simply isn’t practical.
“It would have been a big deal to compost on site,” said Gatos, who will be the Environmental Club president next year. “It grosses people out that all of our food would be decomposing at school.”
What goes out does come back, so to speak. Last week, a delivery of Intervale compost arrived for CVU’s vegetable garden. Students will begin planting the garden this week with foods that will end up in their cafeteria offerings in the fall.
“For us it’s really about the sustainability, about how you can take your waste and turn it into something you can use every day,” Strack said.
Strack estimates as little as 20 gallons of compost were collected daily in the early days of the program, but that now up to 32 gallons are being diverted daily from the trash dumpster. That’s roughly 25 to 40 percent of the 76.5 gallons of compost-able material students found on Trash on the Lawn Day.
The program costs about $240 a month for the hauler – a cost that is being paid for by student fundraising, including a grant from the Friends of CVU. Strack said that while some students are enthused about the idea of getting the program built into the school budget, at this time it’s a long-term goal. Custodial staff members already have their hands full, Gatos said, so that’s why students are taking the lead.
Both Pierson and Gatos said they’re pleased with the progress made so far.
“For the most part people are doing a really good job,” Pierson said. “I still see kids going to the garbage and just dumping things in unconsciously…. We still could do more to tell people why we’re doing this.”
At the start of the program, students handed out a sticker to their peers each time they composted; the homeroom advisory group with the most stickers won an ice cream party.
Pierson and Gatos also are in agreement that they hope the wider community takes away a message from the school’s program.
“If CVU can start it and it’s student run, then obviously a family can start composting; you just need a bin,” Gatos said. “It’s not that hard, and I think people think it’s hard.”
For Gatos, environmental change is about small steps.
“If there can be such a negative change if everybody is doing such negative things,” she said, “then there can be a positive change if everybody does a positive thing.