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Food Waste Recycling

The Food Waste and Recycling program, funded by the Sacramento Solid Waste Authority (SWA), was designed to cut down on compostable and recyclable trash ending up in landfills. Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.1 % of these emissions in 2016. To cut down on methane emissions and foster healthier lungs, Breathe teams up with schools to educate children on a landfill’s environmental impact. Breathe is also implementing systems in schools to teach children to separate food waste from trash and pave the way for a more sustainable, cleaner future.

For more information on the program, contact program manager Katie Smet by email at [email protected] or by calling the Breathe office at (916)444-5900 ext.8#.

This guide was developed based on the Food Waste Recycling Pilot Program implemented into ten schools across Elk Grove Unified School District, San Juan Unified School District, and Twin Rivers Unified School District during the 2018-19 school year. We hope that it will serve as a starting point for schools and school districts to implementing and running their own food waste recycling programs.

A complete version of the guide can be downloaded here.

Prior to recruiting schools, the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator needs to obtain approval from the school district. Often, a school will need approval from a school district leader prior to implementing a food waste recycling program. School district leadership who oversee custodial or facilities functions play an integral role in the implementation of food waste recycling programs. Depending on the school district, these leaders will be in the Maintenance and Operations, Nutrition Services, or General Services Departments.

School district leaders can use the following criteria to identify schools with the capacity and resources to implement a food waste recycling program:

  • School administrators’ ability to take on a new program (e.g., they have staff and volunteer capacity to monitor the program)
  • Schools’ ability to place an outside food waste bin in a safe and secure area that is within a reasonable distance from the Cafeteria
  • Staff and administrators’ willingness to engage in providing feedback to support school district’s implementation and further expansion of food waste recycling into all other elementary schools after the completion of the pilot year implementation.

Once schools are identified, it is necessary for the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator to meet with all levels of school administration and staff to build support for the program. This spans from the principal, down to the head custodians, noon-duty staff, and kitchen staff, all of whom the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator will work closely with during the planning and implementation phases.

To begin generating staff support, the Food Waste Recycling Coordiantor should met with the principal one-on-one to introduce the program, obtain their approval, and complete a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) if needed. During this meeting, determine how to train students to recycle food waste and schedule a date to launch the program. Typically, launches require four weeks to plan and implement a food waste recycling program.

The second step is for the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator to meet with the custodial, noon-duty, and kitchen staff and provide an overview of the program, goals, and timeline of how the program will be implemented. If possible, work with the principal to coordinate one-on-one meetings with staff members.

A site assessment of the current cafeteria setup needs to be completed to identify budget needs for purchasing program equipment. A school’s waste station typically includes two waste bins, one for trash and one for food, as well as a cart for stacking trays. Depending on space, cafeterias may have one or more waste stations set up. Recommended additional supplies include, gloves, yellow vests, and aprons for monitoring the bins. Each school cafeteria is unique, requiring customization and input from all cafeteria staff members. The program is flexible in that it can be easily modified to incorporate specifics for each school even after the program is implemented. An assessment should include these three areas of the school site:

  • Cafeteria
  • Kitchen
  • Outdoor Collection Area

During the site assessment, the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator should solicit staff input on the current process and collectively brainstorm the best placement for and quantity of food waste bins. The cafeteria staff knows their cafeteria the best, and including their input generates shared responsibility and ownership of the program. With information from the assessment and staff guidance, the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator can incorporate a new system with minimal disruption to existing procedures.

Before introducing the program to the entire school, it is vital to train custodial, noon-duty, and kitchen staff who will play an important role in making the program run smoothly. This training can be informal and should ensure everyone understands how the sorting process works and how they will work together to maintain the order and cleanliness of the program.

Important suggestions for the training are to:

  • Emphasize that the food waste recycling program is not generating any new waste, simply sorting existing food waste into a different bin.
  • Invite school district leaders to be present at the training to emphasize that these procedures are new operating policies.
  • Emphasize the impact that the school will have on the environment and their community.

Educating students about the food waste recycling program is a critical piece to the successful implementation of the program. There are several strategies to educate students including school-wide assemblies, classroom presentations, or student-made videos. At a minimum, students should be explicitly taught how to separate waste so only acceptable materials end up in the food waste bins. Training should take place the morning of the program launch so that this information is fresh in the students’ minds.

Two possible strategies for training students are:

  1. School-wide Educational Assembly
    Students and teachers can attend an educational assembly about how and why to recycle food waste. The presentation should train students on the new procedures and teach them the reasons for recycling food waste, such as harms of landfilling organics and food insecurity, in a stimulating way that motivates students to make a difference.
  2. Classroom Presentations
    Depending on the school size and who will be responsible for the education process, the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator can either provide a turnkey presentation at an all-teacher meeting and have the teachers bring the information back to their classroom to present to their students or the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator can present to each classroom. If a turnkey presentation is given to teachers, give a mandatory deadline as to when the presentation must be given to students and make sure teachers receive a copy of the presentation, materials, and a brief lesson plan so teachers can provide the correct information on the new procedures and reasons for recycling food waste

After students are trained, it is strongly recommended to recruit students as monitors to support their peers through the sorting process and reduce contamination in the food waste bin. The cafeterias should be monitored for at least two to three months after the program is implemented.

On the day of student training, program materials and supplies need to be developed and prepared for the program to be launched at lunch. Moving forward, the new collection system must be consistently in place during each meal served in the cafeteria.

The initial two to three weeks of the program provides an opportunity to work out any bugs in the system. The Food Waste Recycling Coordinator should be on site to answer questions, provide support, and re-teach students and staff during the first few weeks. The Coordinator can provide suggestions and implementation support, such as assessing the location and number of waste bins to improve the efficiency of the program.

After the two to three weeks of onsite technical assistance and support, it is important for the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator to transition ongoing support from onsite monitoring to conducting monthly check-ins with cafeteria staff in order to continue the transition of ownership of the new program.

At the end of the pilot program year, the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator should conduct interviews with stakeholders involved in the planning and implementation phases to better understand and evaluate program challenges, constraints, and best practices. Stakeholders include student monitors, administrators, and cafeteria staff. Gathering stakeholder feedback is extremely important for developing a Sustainability Plan that continues the food waste recycling program post-pilot year.

Arrive at in-person interviews prepared with a list of five to ten questions to ask and method to record the interviews. Questions should address the following topic areas:

  • Program role
  • Program review
  • Program recommendations
  • Impacts on students and staff in the school

A full list of stakeholder interview questions can be found in the full version of the guide in Appendix D.

The Sustainability Plan is the most critical component for ensuring the food waste recycling program continues and is utilized in future school years. This plan should incorporate feedback from stakeholder interviews and offer a system that provides consistent monitoring of the program and marketing to remind students and staff how the program works and why it is important. In the case that the Food Waste Recycling Coordinator does not return the following year, the school should identify on-site personnel to fulfill the responsibilities of the Coordinator.

The Sustainability Plan should cover the following areas:

  • The need for identifying roles and responsibilities associated with the program and strategies
  • Strategies for the re-education of students, teachers, and staff, each year
  • Written documentation and reflection that include lessons learned and helpful resources (like this guide!) for new team members to take ownership of the food waste recycling program responsibilities

A list of recommended strategies can be found in the full version of the guide on page 13.