Seven Generation Ahead’s partnership with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to implement zero waste programs and teach students to be Zero Waste Ambassadors has entered its third year. Five schools participated in the initial year pilot program, five more came aboard in the second year and this year’s plan is to double the number of schools from 10 to 20.

The program has four goals: divert 80 percent of all cafeteria and kitchen waste from landfills by piloting commercial composting and increasing recycling efforts; educate students and staff about the how and why of the program; determine best practices for CPS as they look to expand food scrap composting to other schools in the district, and conduct a cost benefit analysis for CPS.

Another big goal is to return the finished compost back to the school so that it can be used in schools garden to grow more food, says Jen Nelson, SGA’s Zero Waste Program manager. “Bringing finished compost back to a school helps to complete the cycle, showing students the impact of their efforts.”

Some schools will start getting compost this fall.

Marine Leadership Academy High School implemented its Zero Waste Program during the 2015-16 school year, and the efforts have been worth it, Principal Erin Galfer says. “Composting at MLA has helped us to give clarity to students about why we study environmental science and how, when everybody does their part, we can change our impact on the environment.”

For its part, SGA guides each school through the operational changes needed, including determining the number and placement of sorting stations and helping coordinate the provision of compost bins, compostable bags, and hauling services. SGA also works with custodians and kitchen staff to integrate their input so that the new sorting system has minimal impact on workflow.

Three waste assessments are conducted at each school cafeteria and kitchen—a baseline, launch day and year-end audit.  These final audits measure actual impact and help to identify best practices and opportunities for improvement.

The first 10 pilot schools were sending 83 percent of cafeteria and kitchen waste to the landfill before the program began. Now only 19 percent is going to the landfill. An average of 1.2 tons of resources are diverted from landfill daily from composting, recycling, liquid diversion and FoodShare at these 10 schools.

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Bell Elementary School Assistant Principal Katie Miller says, the CPS Commercial Composting Program has had a significant impact at her North Center neighborhood school. “We used to have at least 5 bags of garbage going to landfills every single day after lunch. Now, we only have one.  

“The disposal procedures are now habitual for our students, and we see it translating to our greater community on a regular basis in terms of litter in classrooms and on the playground,” Miller says.

cps2A number of schools have integrated the program into their school mission and culture in unique ways. At Southside Occupational High School, the zero waste program is used to teach culinary and hospitality service skills. McAuliffe Elementary School connects composting to their program on sustainable agriculture. And at Solorio High School, the zero waste program is the focus of a chemistry unit on chemical reactions, in addition to an opportunity for any student to earn required service learning hours.

This year will see the impact at CPS doubled as 10 new schools come on board.  These schools will connect to the 10 already on board to explore connections between local schools, connect elementary and high school efforts, and expand this program into to new neighborhoods. And this year will double the impact as almost two and a half tons a day of resources get recovered rather than thrown away.