NY Middle School Get Serious About Composting

Hommocks Middle School, supported by the Town of Mamaroneck, is the first public school in New York to launch a Rocket Composter, which will remove food waste from the waste stream and reduce trucking and disposal costs to the Peekskill facility that burns Westchester’s garbage. At the same time, the Rocket Composter – made possible by a grant from the Mamaroneck Schools Foundation — will produce compost that the school will use in its garden and greenhouse and make available to community members for use on their lawns and other green areas.

A900 RCS Rocket 400x267 NY Middle School Get Serious About Composting“Most importantly, the Rocket Composter provides us with the opportunity to educate students about the importance of turning food waste back into nature’s best and being good stewards of the earth,” says Hommocks Principal Dr. Seth Weitzman, who worked with the Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Shaps to write a grant proposal to the Mamaroneck Schools Foundation and see the project through to installation and training of both students and staff.

In the past, Hommocks would generate about 12 bags of trash every day at lunch weighing approximately 156 lbs, and the students were told to just throw everything away. With the help of We Future Cycle, a non-profit organization specializing in school lunch recycling and large scale sustainability programs, Hommocks took on the task of educating 1,200 middle school students on where the garbage goes when one casually “throws something away.” Students learned that what they considered garbage was actually fully recyclable material; all they needed to do was sort.

While students themselves will not operate this large sustainable solution (the approximate size of a hot water heater, turned on its side, in someone’s home), now located outdoors between the Hommocks cafeteria and garden, they have been practicing the prerequisite process of source separation in the cafeteria.

The recycling station is set up for students to first empty excess liquids into a bucket and then sort their containers into either milk cartons or plastic commingled. Then they sort any remaining plastics or aluminum foil also into commingled, leaving only food waste and single-serve paper products. The food waste goes into a bucket to be fed to the Rocket Composter. Paper products as well as single-serve plastic wrappers, chip bags, Capri suns, and plastic baggies are left for the trash.

Training for custodians, who will be operating the Rocket Composter by filling the Rocket in lieu of dumpsters, also took place. Data was collected on how much recyclables and food waste were being taken out of the waste stream. “We Future Cycle helped us do a ‘before’ and ‘after’ data analysis,” Dr Weitzman said. “And the results are quite astonishing.” The initial audit day was spent just counting and weighing every bag of trash. A pile of 11 bulging bags weighing 156 lbs. was accumulated within the two-hour time span of lunch.

After sorting, Hommocks had two bags of commingled recycling, one bag of milk cartons, 28 lbs. of excess liquid, a whopping 77 lbs. of food waste, a bin of paper and only 20 lbs. of trash. That is an 86 percent reduction while feeding valuable resources into recycling.

The 77 lbs. of food waste were mixed with woodchips and leaves and fed to the Rocket. It takes two weeks for the material to move through the Rocket, undergoing fast tracked decomposition thanks to the unique design of the in-vessel composter. The output needs to rest for an additional 4 weeks to complete the nitrifying process and can then be used as rich compost in Hommocks’ own garden or greenhouse.

The Recycling Club and Student Government continue to play leadership roles in explaining the food separation process to fellow students.

To create usable compost, equal parts of organic food waste and wood chips must be combined with some already usable compost. Hommocks is using the town’s wood chips and compost, which happen to be conveniently located on the middle school property. The town has been supportive of this effort and views the Rocket and related lessons on managing food waste as an important part of the community’s overall sustainability initiatives.

“The Rocket is a great way to reduce waste and the associated costs for the Town and Village Joint Garbage Commission, a co-sponsor of the MSF grant,” says Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Nancy Seligson. “The town has been interested in promoting food composting for several years, and this is a big step forward in composting and educating our kids about composting. We are very pleased to support the effort.”

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency and United States Department of Agriculture announced the nation’s first-ever national food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030. In a public service announcement currently running on LMC-TV, Town of Mamaroneck resident and Sustainability Action Professor Beth Radow explains for homeowners how they, too, can reduce food waste and save money. “I have been a champion of bringing the Rocket Composter to Hommocks and am proud of the leadership the Mamaroneck School District has taken on this critical national issue,” Radow says.

A community education day is planned for this spring, after Hommocks has had some experience with the Rocket and mastered the composting. Community members will be invited into the school to learn about composting; upon leaving, they will receive a goody bag that includes “100% Genuine Hommocks Compost” and can be used for community members’ gardens.