Monday, April 16, 2018


In our school cafeterias, every day during lunch time, students scrape and sort and dump their food waste into different bins, including the prized compost bins. Most students have adopted the quick actions as habit, and few are aware that Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have created one of the most comprehensive and effective composting programs of any North Carolina school district. “It’s a win-win-win,” said Dan Schnitzer, Director of Sustainability (and perhaps local King of Compost!). The district is saving money, students are learning about everything from worm bins to sequestering carbons, and cafeteria scraps are being transformed into high-quality soil instead of ending up in a Sampson County landfill, releasing methane and damaging air and water quality.

“Students feel accountable for composting, and they consider it as a daily routine,” said Laura Fonseca, second-grade teacher at Carrboro Elementary. “This strategy is empowering them, the next generation, to be aware of being environmental friendly.”

Since 2015, when CHCCS began composting with Brooks Contractors in Chatham County, more than a million pounds of compostable waste have been diverted from the landfill. For a little perspective, it would require more than 21 dump trucks to haul that amount of waste, and the carbon emissions avoided by the composting equals the emissions of more than 100 cars driven for a year.

When Schnitzer began his sustainability work in the district more than three years ago, Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese had already laid the groundwork for establishing a composting program. Now that the town of Chapel Hill no longer has its own landfill for public use, the negative environmental impact of transporting food waste to Eastern North Carolina has further increased the motivation to compost. 

Schnitzer analyzed our district’s cafeteria waste by following garbage trucks around and checking how full each dumpster was, as well as how often they were picked up. He found plenty of excess capacity and margins to cut; district-wide, elementary and middle school cafeterias were tossing 158 bags of landfill waste a day. By decreasing the number of school dumpsters and the number of pick up times, the money saved could be applied to the composting expenses, and now the district produces only 18 bags of landfill waste a day from the cafeterias. Each elementary school has reduced its output to about one bag daily. Like he said, win-win-win!

Now that the system is set up, Schnitzer begins each school year by visiting every cafeteria to provide orientations, and to receive feedback on how the composting went the previous year - he’s always eager to hear suggestions for improving the process. 

Once the year is underway, he visits as many classrooms as he can to talk with students about how and why we compost, with slide show presentations and worm bins. He said that the youngest students are often so delighted that they can talk about “worm poop” - and, in fact, repeat the word “poop” again and again. They are transfixed. Schnitzer said he’s lost track of the number of parents who’ve emailed or spoken to him about their children advocating for home composting, setting up worm bins and creating backyard gardens.

Mindy Morton, Math/Science Specialist at Carrboro Elementary School said, “We are definitely ‘All In’. All of our classrooms participate in snack composting as well as the cafeteria composting.”

“Composting has become second nature to the kids here at Northside,” said Elizabeth Symons. “Last year, my third-graders took true ownership in composting when, during our Plants unit in Science, they were responsible for saving compostable materials for a week at home to bring in to add to the compost pile in our garden. Once they learned about the decomposition process, and saw how their ‘waste’ turned into nutrient-rich compost, I saw a noticeable change in my students' behaviors post-snack and lunch.” Symons said that now, when students occasionally eat lunch in the classroom, they'll ask her to go to the cafeteria to compost their leftovers. “The lessons they have learned through the composting process have transferred into their daily lives, as they are more conscious about trash, recyclable materials, and food waste.”    

By next year, classes may be able to take field trips out to Goldston to see where their scraps are being processed into compost. Brooks Contractors is establishing an educational building, and students would be able to view the wind rows and turning machine, as well as examine the various stages of decomposition. But for now, our students are already learning a great deal.   

In February, the district received the annual delivery of donated compost from Brooks Contractors. “Many schools use that compost to bring their gardens to life and to complete the natural cycle!” said Schnitzer. 

“Composting is a great way to teach kids to be aware of the waste they are creating,” said Arwen Carlin, third-grade teacher’s assistant at Carrboro Elementary. “Diverting waste from the landfill is so important for our future on this planet! By teaching the kids how to compost and recycle, and the reasons we need to do these things, we are giving them a chance create a more sustainable future for themselves.”

“This has truly been a community effort,” Schnitzer said, “and I especially want to thank our district custodians, cafeteria employees, teaching assistants, Amy Brooks of Brooks Contractors and everyone else who has played a hands-on role in bringing this program to life. We will use this milestone as a springboard for continued growth and success.”

Last spring, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools received the Best of Green Schools 2017 Award in the School System category from the Center for Green Schools at the U.S Green Building Council. Nationally, CHCCS was the only “School Systems” award winner.