Composting in Virginia School Cafeterias

Students in six Prince William County Public Schools (VA) changed the way they threw out cafeteria trash as part of a pilot composting program started this school year. Instead of one trash can, there are multiple barrels in classrooms and cafeterias for food scraps, milk cartons, recyclable plastics and non-recyclables. 

Scraps of food are collected and recycled after lunch every day with a goal to reduce Prince William County’s environmental impact.

credit: John Markon/Virginia NRCS

At the beginning of the year, teachers and staff were given training on what could or could not be composted so they could help students. The district was able to get rid of its biggest barrier, which was reduced staffing due to COVID-19, by streamlining the recycling process.

Now almost 6,200 Prince William County students are taking part in this recycling program. The district says it has received positive feedback with more schools wanting to add composting efforts.

credit: John Markon/Virginia NRCS

Once students do their part by clearing their lunch trays using the proper bins, the Prince William County School (PWCS) Nutrition staff takes the leftover food and any compostable packaging out to compost bins.  

“The kitchen managers have been the biggest champions of the program,” said PWCS Food and Nutrition Department Director, Adam Russo. “PWCS Nutrition has always been committed to sustainability and energy efficiency. Through our partnership with PWCS’s Energy Management office, we have been able to reduce our utility requirements and consumption, helping to save millions of dollars. Recently, we invested in compostable trays and paper straws to minimize our environmental footprint, and we are thrilled that this work is a continuation of those efforts.”  

credit: John Markon/Virginia NRCS

Cafeteria scraps are taken to Prince William’s Balls Ford Road recycling facility, where the county’s organic waste treatment contractor, Freestate Farms of Manassas, begins the composting process. The collected food is mixed with leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste, then shredded and placed in bays for about 15 days where it sits to decompose.   It is then moved to another area of the composting facility and placed into 20-foot high piles called “windrows” for another 30 days. At that point, it is processed to a finely ground compost ready to be used in gardens and lawns. 

The collection of the leftovers is made possible through a collaboration with the USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. In the first six weeks of the program, almost eight tons of food waste was composted instead of being sent to the landfill.

Some of the organic yard waste will be sold by Freestate Farms, however some compost created by waste from the six schools will be returned to the schools this spring for use in their school gardens.

credit: John Markon/Virginia NRCS

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