Evanston/Skokie School District 65 (D65) has made huge strides towards becoming zero waste after years of hard work and determination. Thanks to dedicated parents, students, and staff, and key support at the district level, D65 is significantly reducing waste in two ways– sourcing compostable lunch trays and composting food scraps. Last year, all school lunches in D65 were served on styrofoam trays, amounting to roughly 12,000 styrofoam trays per week going to landfill. With the start of this school year, all lunches in 14 of the district’s elementary and middle schools are now served on compostable trays which get composted in a commercial composting facility. Even more impressive, six schools (Dewey, Willard, Bessie Rhodes, Washington, Kingsley, and Chute) are now involved in a pilot program which also diverts food scraps from student lunches for composting. Collective Resource, an Evanston-based company in the business of collecting food scraps across the metro area, has partnered with D65 to collect the trays and the food scraps.
Planting the Seed
To find out how these changes came to pass and have been implemented, SGA spoke with Becky Brodsky, a Collective Resource employee and D65 parent volunteer. For 10 years, Brodsky has been planting the seeds for zero waste schools in the district. Brodsky has been rallying the community for years, but most efforts were only happening at the school level. Then last fall, Becky met a few passionate parents from other schools. Together, they met with the mayor, the superintendent, the chief business officer, and other district leaders, advocating that the district make sustainability a priority and implement waste reduction initiatives district-wide. Their efforts led to a six-school food scrap composting pilot program, the switch to compostable trays, and the composting of the trays. The district realized this program would have a huge environmental impact while saving money by reducing the need for daily landfill pickups.
Kate Mason-Schultz, D65 Nutrition Services Coordinator, has also been a driving force behind this zero waste change, said Brodsky. Mason-Schultz and her team have revamped job descriptions for custodians and lunchroom supervisors to address their new sustainability duties and create a self-reliant system. Making sustainability part of job descriptions ensures stability and consistency throughout the district, making the system more efficient. Mason-Schultz has also made strides to reduce waste at its source by discontinuing the use of spork/napkin/straw packets and instead offering these items separately. Kids now only take what they need, preventing unnecessary waste and contamination. Having a leader like Mason-Schultz has made all the difference during these first steps toward more sustainable school lunchrooms.
D65 and Collective Resource were faced with the challenge of developing the most efficient and cost-effective system for collecting trays from the 14 elementary and middle schools and also collecting food scraps from the six food scrap composting schools. Like many districts, D65 schools do not have their own kitchens. D65 meals are prepared at Evanston Township High School and delivered daily to each of the sites. So it was determined that a separate collection for each compostable material (trays and food scraps) would work best.
Here’s how it works for trays: At each school, students stack their trays, and the stacked trays are placed in large toter carts lined with compostable bags. A district truck collects the toters on a daily basis and backhauls them to the district’s warehouse where Collective Resource picks them up weekly. “As with any new process, it takes some time to work through and troubleshoot any challenges that come up,” said Brodsky. She shared that they underestimated the amount of space the trays would take up in the warehouse, even though they are stacked and in toters. They are working on a solution for storing the trays more efficiently.
At most of the six food scrap composting pilot schools, students sort their food scraps into 5-gallon buckets at the end of their lunch period. At the middle school, the food scraps are emptied directly into the 32-gallon tote. The overall process looks a bit different at every school. Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, a K-8 school with about 360 students, has been composting for seven years and has led the way for other schools in the district to follow suit. The program has been a huge success for which Brodsky largely credits the students. “Students really stepped up and showed interest. They take their job very seriously,” Brodsky said. Student volunteers have greatly reduced the amount of contamination because they are eager to get involved and they want to do a good job. Initially, student volunteers in each lunch period would help monitor the sorting station to prevent contamination, but it proved difficult to keep consistent volunteers because students wanted to eat lunch and not miss out on their social time. To address this challenge, they now have 2-3 student volunteers from just the last lunch period manage the compost buckets. The students are provided gloves and tongs for fishing out any contamination from the 2-3 buckets of food scraps produced daily. Students then empty the buckets into a larger compost toter and clean the buckets for the next day. Student volunteers are rotated every few days so they can still enjoy recess on the days they are not volunteering. This kind of student engagement and enthusiasm make a huge difference on the impact of a composting program as is shown by the successes at Bessie Rhodes.
For both the tray composting system and the food scrap composting pilot, Brodsky emphasized the importance of regular communication with custodians and the lunch staff. It is vital that they know what is happening in the lunchroom and are aware of how to properly sort waste and stack and store the trays most efficiently. One challenge the pilot composting schools faced when it came to communication and logistics was staff and student confusion about which bin was for which material stream, which caused contamination in the compost and recycling. Brodsky shared that posting clear signage, providing education, and ensuring staff oversight are all key to reducing contamination. Waste audits provided valuable information early in the process and are a great place to start for any school interested in reducing waste. A number of D65 schools received waste audit support from the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC), which helped open eyes as to how much could actually be diverted from the landfill.
Brodsky pointed out that although they are constantly striving to decrease the district’s environmental impact, they have not lost sight of the significant progress already made. The immediate next steps are to continue to streamline the composting systems and reduce contamination. They are also working with D65 communications staff to create new D65-specific lunchroom sorting signs for use across the district. After that, their goal is to get recycling set up in every school lunchroom in a consistent way district-wide (right now, recycling is being handled differently in each school with mixed success). Eventually, Brodsky would like to see the district eliminate single-use condiment packets by using dispensers instead and limit the use of packaging. The condiment packets and packaging are not only extremely wasteful, but they are a large source of contamination in the compost. Eliminating these items will decrease landfill waste and contamination of organic materials.
D65 Waste Reduction Helps Meet Climate Goals
There are plenty of environmental, educational, social, and financial benefits of reducing landfill waste in schools, but perhaps one of the most significant is how it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Zero Waste is, in fact, one of the six key goals outlined in the September 2018 draft of the City of Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan: Carbon Neutral by 2050. This plan aims to make Evanston 100% Zero Waste by 2050 through efforts including waste prevention, food recovery, recycling, and composting. The great strides that D65 has made around zero waste will help Evanston reach this goal, all while engaging students every single day and raising them up in a new zero waste normal.
Congrats to the entire D65 school community on their terrific progress! We look forward to updates on what they tackle next.