In the eternal battle to get kids to eat their greens, the stakes just got a little…lower? Last month, New York City announced a dramatic expansion of its school organics collection program, meaning that what doesn’t feed kids could eventually feed plants instead.

Starting this academic year, 720 schools across the city will be composting food waste, including every public school in Manhattan and Staten Island. That’s an enormous increase from the previous year’s 358 schools, and the Department of Sanitation hopes to have all of the city’s educational facilities on board by 2016-17.

Scooping Up Savings

New York City residents and businesses produce more than 20,000 tons of solid waste every day (that’s 40 million pounds!). A large portion of that is generated by the public school system, which has more than 1,800 buildings spread out through the city.

Forty percent of school waste comes directly from the cafeteria.

Dealing with this output has enormous financial costs — NYC spends approximately $100 per ton to dispose of trash in landfills — and the process of getting it to its final destination is fraught with health, environmental, and social issues.

While there’s no doubt that having kids actually eat their veggies would be the best possible way to reduce school waste, it has become clear that organics collection and composting are also pretty good options.

“We realized that if we could divert that waste, we could not only save the city money, but we could also make an extraordinary environmental impact and make a statement about recycling.” says John Shea, chief executive officer at the New York City Department of Education.

Depending on where the participating school is located, the organic material is picked up by city sanitation trucks and taken to compost facilities in Staten Island, upstate New York or Delaware. From there, the waste decomposes into nutrient-rich soil that is then sold to farmers and landscapers.

Eventually, the city will also send compost to the Newtown Creek digester eggs, which turn garbage into natural gas.

DSNY claims that the cost of composting organics is 40 to 60 percent less than disposing of regular trash, thanks to the resale of the end product. Once the city’s entire school system is participating, administrators expect that they will be able to negotiate even lower costs with the facilities that receive the material.

Color-Coding and Hands-on Training

Compost. Photo credit: zen Sutherland | Compost collection bins. Photo credit:

Implementing a composting system in public school — where kids often have less than 30 minutes just to scarf their sandwich — is not for the faint of heart.

The process begins in the cafeteria, where students sort their food into color-coded bins: one for trash (plastic bags, foam cups and wrappers), another for recyclables (metal, glass, plastic and milk cartons), another for liquids (milk, juice, water) and finally, a bin for food scraps.

Some schools utilize “green teams” of students or parents who don latex gloves and wield plastic grabbers to sort wayward objects.

But as one might imagine, the real key is training. “We have been working closely with the NYC Dept of Education to systematically train the Deputy Directors of Facilities who in turn train their custodians, and similarly SchoolFood managers,” says Mary Post, Public Information & Outreach Specialist at the DSNY. “We also provide regular trainings for Sustainability Coordinators in each school; and we’re working with the unions to present trainings to their members.”

The NYC Recycles website also hosts a plethora of resources and information for schools that are implementing composting programs, as does GrowNYC.

Trial by Pilot

Middle school students enjoying lunch. Photo credit: USDA

The program that could eventually impact the way more than a million students across New York City eat (and discard) their lunch got its start in a much more modest way. In early 2012, a group of five public school parents launched a completely PTA-funded compost pilot in eight District 3 schools on the Upper West Side.

The parents—each of whom chair their school’s “Green Teams”—worked to implement the program in the school cafeterias by training students and staff on composting basics, including how to separate trash from meat, dairy, and kitchen scraps.

They also kept detailed records on how much compost, garbage, and recycling was generated at each school.

At the end of the program, which lasted for exactly four months, the parents found that they were diverting 450 pounds of food waste from landfill every single day — and reducing the volume of cafeteria garbage by 85 percent. In real terms, this meant decreasing the number of garbage bags used in their cafeterias from 54 to eight.

The following academic year the city took over the program, and has expanded it each year since.