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Composting in a Concrete Jungle

Budget cuts are reducing bus service and meal choices, but they’re not cutting down on the waste in our schools.

Schools such as PS 333 (The Manhattan School for Children) want to change that by starting composting programs to teach their students that food waste does not have to end up in a landfill. Instead, the schools are teaching, food waste can be used to create rich black soil that will nourish plants students can eat in the future. Students learn the invaluable lesson of decay, regrowth, and the cycles of life.

The voluntary composting program the Manhattan School for Children is initiating could one day be mandatory, not just for our schools but our entire city. That’s because composting is an environmentally superior alternative to landfilling organics that eliminates methane production and substantially reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, ton for ton, composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions from organics management over any other management option. Citywide composting is already in place in cities like Seattle and Berkeley, Calif.

The Manhattan School for Children, a K-8 school with both a Wellness Committee and a Green Team, has made sustainability issues a top priority. This fall the school will be completing an ambitious greenhouse project with a scheduled opening for Nov. 5. The greenhouse will serve as a science-based learning lab and will play a key role in the school’s composting program, which came about in large part to two of the school’s parents, Manuela Zamora and Sidsel Robards.

We spoke with Melanie Sherman, a parent at the school and nutritionist who has helped to spearhead many of PS 333’s “green” initiatives. She explained to us that the school has composting bins in every classroom, where the students compost paper, fruit, vegetables, egg shells, tea leaves and coffee grinds. Their compost bins are homemade using wriggler worms and paper.

Melanie told us:

You can buy finished bins at the Lower East Side Ecology Center for $55 each. We chose to build our own and ended up spending less — about $15 for a large plastic bin. The custodians at the school helped drill holes along the top of the bins for air vents. Each bin needs a pound of worms, which are around $22 per pound. We bought worms from several places — the ones from The Lower East Side Ecology Center were great.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center played an important role in helping PS 333 set up its composting system. The center conducted a workshop with the teachers where they handed out informational flyers as well as offered an emergency hotline for anyone with questions. There were also books that the teachers and parents used to educate themselves and the students. The most popular were “Worms Eat Our Garbage: Classroom Activities for a Better Environment” and “Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System.” A parent at the school got a grant from Lowe’s that covered the costs of the bins and worms as part of the Greenhouse Project.

The school’s Green Team also recruited older kids as “ambassadors” to teach the younger students the values and “how to’s” of composting. Involving older students as educators is an excellent way of letting the students know that the composting system is their accomplishment — and their responsibility to feed and maintain.

Melanie did admit to us that one classroom had “a big problem” with fruit flies, but she assured us that fruit flies can be avoided by microwaving the fruit waste before adding it to the bin (a great tip). Even so, some classrooms chose not to put fruit in their bins.  Fruit or no fruit, the compost collected from the classes will go to the school’s newly constructed greenhouse as well as to the local greenmarket.

When we asked Melanie what advice she had for parents wanting to start a composting system at their school, we couldn’t help but notice her own childlike enthusiasm:

Keep at it — it is definitely a learning curve both for the teachers and kids, but I think it is a great teaching tool. We have several families who now compost in their NYC apartments. One pound of worms in a bin can eat up to 3 pounds of waste in a week — if you are going out of town, you can throw in an apple and the New York Times and they will be fine for a week.

The Manhattan School for Children plans to launch a website later this year with ideas and events for people interested in composting. The school’s goal is to become a model school for a “Green, Clean, Sustainable and Healthy” environment for New York City’s children. We look forward to keeping you posted on their future accomplishments.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.