Adi Talwar

Jonas Schailer (in a red tee shirt) of Common Ground Compost teaching youth about the composting process at a community garden located in the East Village section of Manhattan. Kevin Tung (17) looks on while Jeffrey Wong (20) and Schailer add composting material to the composting enclosure. Both Tung and Wong are a part of New York City Department of Youth & Community Development’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

The success of New York City’s school organics collection program is a mixed bag — and the evidence is right there on the curb in Ridgewood.

On a Friday morning in early June, nine brown bins stood in neat rows of three on the sidewalk outside P.S. 88 on Catalpa Avenue. Inside each, plastic bags bulged with wet wads of lettuce and other decomposing veggies — compostable items. But in the 50 or so clear bags next to the bins, a mix of organics — wilted greens, sliced peppers, cardboard trays — mixed with empty plastic applesauce cups and sealed cereal containers. That level of contamination means sanitation workers will likely chuck the bags in the garbage.

The following Tuesday, four bins sat wedged between a staircase and a wall outside P.S. 71 on Forest Avenue. The bins held a mixture of plastic cups, metalized polypropylene chip bags and organic material. Next to the bins, more large bags also contained a plastic and organic goulash. Yet, a bag filled with dozens of compostable trays stacked in two neat columns lay on top of the bins — an example of immaculate sorting.

Outside I.S. 93, about 80 clear bags lined Fairview Avenue across from the asphalt expanse of Rosemary’s Playground. Some bags contained purely organic materials, others held paper. Many, however, included a mix of food scraps and plastic packaging. There were no composting bins in sight.

All three schools participate in the Department of Education’s Organics Collection program, a partnership with the Sanitation Department that includes 725 schools. Each program demands participation from all levels of the school, said DOE Director of Sustainability Meredith McDermott.

“This is truly a community effort—everyone needs to be involved to ensure success,” McDermott said. “At the school level, administrative buy-in is critical to best ensure that all staff and students participate on a consistent basis.”

School staff, students and other stakeholders say it takes a village to succeed, but add that each of the participating schools achieve a different level of success depending on the leadership, the lunchroom staff and the school culture.

“It depends on the school, on the lunchroom staff, on the principal,” said Andrea Lieske, the operations coordinator at the NYC Compost Project hosted by Earth Matter and the mother of public school students. “They’re overextended.”

On the curb and In the schools

Organic, compostable material accounted for more than half the waste generated by New York City public schools last year, according to the Sanitation Department’s 2017 Waste Characterization report. The city does not plan in the next school year to expand the organics collection program to any of the 1,100 schools not yet involved however, said a Sanitation Department spokesperson.

The city launched the organics collection program at four Manhattan public schools during the 2011-2012 school year and by the 2013-14 school year, more than 350 DOE and private schools had enrolled. The initiative has paralleled the expansion of the citywide curbside collection program, which began as a pilot program in residential Staten Island in 2013 and has since grown to cover a catchment zone that is home to 3.5 million people.

The department has also halted the expansion of the citywide curbside collection program in order to evaluate service “with the goal of increasing efficiencies and streamlining the program,” the spokesperson said.

“We expect to have a modified expansion schedule in the coming months,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Recent data released by the department revealed that 10.6 percent of organic material in the program’s catchment zone gets collected and composted. The figure demonstrates the steep path toward the city’s ultimate goal of achieving zero waste to landfills by 2030.

The low composting rate is partly due to inconsistencies in the sorting and separating of organic material in the school lunchroom. Contamination — ketchup packets woven between uneaten curly fries, plastic utensils dumped in with salad — make sanitation workers the final arbiters of what gets composted and what gets sent to the landfill.

“The schools try,” said one sanitation worker as he hauled trash bags into the back of a garbage truck on a Friday morning in Ridgewood. “It depends on the day. If there’s a [soda] can in there, we can take it out, but if there’s a lot of contamination then it’s garbage.”

Another Sanitation worker — a manager who sat in a parked vehicle and documented waste collection on a side street — said school staff are still getting accustomed to composting procedures.

For example, several schools he visits did not put organic materials in clear plastic bags, he said. That meant sanitation crews would mistake them for inorganic trash and throw the compostable materials into the garbage. When workers counseled them to use plastic bags, the amount of organics collected increased at those schools, he said..

“They’re trying,” the manager said. “The kids are enthusiastic. The young ones especially. They’re better about sorting.”

To Allison Boston, the head cook at a school lunchroom in East New York, the way to ensure more efficient organics collections is simple: hire more staff.

“The program is good, but we need bodies,” Boston said. “The fact is, we have to mop the floor, put the garbage out, and it’s very difficult on top of the other work done in school because staff is short.”

The staff always manages to get the job done, she said, but the sorting adds an extra stressor, especially if someone calls out of work.

“The city made the policy and we have to comply, but they said there would be a pilot program,” she said. “They didn’t give us time for training policies. They just put it in the schools.”

Boston said staff struggle to sort while preparing the lunchroom for the next surge of students. The building she works in has three different schools and the lunchroom hosts students in six 25-minute shifts from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Boston said most of the food service and kitchen staff leave at 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m.

“We tend to miss a lot [because] there is a lot of chaos,” she said. “I feed close to 1,000 kids and we have to change every period. We’re supposed to have 25 minutes to clean up, but kids start coming in early anyway.”

Boston belongs to the District Council 37 municipal employees union, which calls for the city to hire more food service staff to keep up with new lunchroom responsibilities like organics collection.

“The bottom line is staffing. It’s easier with bodies,” said Shaun Francis, the president of DC372, which represents DOE employees like school lunch aides, auxiliary paraprofessionals and school crossing guards. “It’s an essential program but the program won’t work efficiently if you don’t [increase] the labor involved and get the workers in there.”

According to a 2014 Sanitation Department report on school organic collection, the material from school kitchens is typically free from contamination “and is generally pure leftover food waste,” but “the material from school cafeterias is often heavily contaminated.”

Debby Lee Cohen, the executive director of Cafeteria Culture, an environmental organization focused on in-school food waste education, said lunchroom staff tend to do an impressive job separating organic and non-organic materials in the kitchen. The problems arise when it comes to sorting the materials the students eat — or toss unopened.

“What’s coming out of the kitchen is not contaminated,” Cohen said. “They’re following their job, but food service staff could have more support. The [job] is complicated by time limitations.”

Fostering a culture of sustainability

To organics consultants and advocates, effective organics collection demands a holistic approach to educating staff and students, not a simple sorting directive or dependence on lunchroom staff.

“Bins alone won’t do it,” said Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, operations director at Common Ground Compost, a company that advises and educates businesses, nonprofits and schools on how to implement organics collection. “The only way for composting to work is for parents, students and teachers to be engaged together.”

Organics collection must be incorporated into a broader sustainability curriculum beginning in early grades, Danberg-Ficarelli said. She said she has been invited to visit schools that want to begin organics collection but have not even implemented a consistent recycling program.

“That’s not the fault of the schools. They’re under-resourced,” she said. “Until it’s free, equitable and acceptable for all people, composting will continue to be niche.”

Cohen also said schools must foster cultures of sustainability to reduce the “high contamination” inside organics bins in schools. That means teaching children the role organics collection plays in improving the environment and addressing climate change.

“What really motivates kids of any age, and adults, is environmental justice,” she said. “Once kids understand the connection to climate change and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, they get it no matter their background or age.”

Cohen’s organization Cafeteria Culture introduces that information through their Garbology 101 presentation, an interactive lesson on the life-cycle of trash and its impact on the environment.
Ultimately, she said, a schoolwide embrace of organics collection and broader environmental goals begins at the top.

“Who it depends on more than anyone is the principal,” Cohen said. “The principal has the final say [and] if a principal thinks it’s really important, it will get done.”

Cohen said one concrete step that principals can take to reduce contamination is getting rid of single-use condiment packets, which often end up mixed in with compostable materials, and switching to bulk pump containers of ketchup, mayo and mustard. She compared the idea to the 2015 citywide switch from styrofoam trays to compostable cardboard models in school lunchrooms.

Before making the switch, the city reported that contamination in the school organics stream was “significantly higher than anticipated,” according to a 2014 Sanitation Department report. Foregoing styrofoam removed a major contamination culprit, she said.

Informing and empowering kids

In addition to making organics collection easier for lunchroom staff and more efficient for the city, exposing students to the concept can motivate them to incorporate sustainability throughout their lives.

The organization Earth Matter, where Lieske works, operates a composting program on Governor’s Island and hires students from New York City high schools and colleges to churn and till the decomposing material.

David Ip, a sophomore at City College of New York, said schools could do a better job informing students about organics collections.

He graduated from Staten Island Technical High School and said he was not aware of organics collection at his school. According to the DOE, Staten Island Tech has participated in the organics collection program, since the Spring of 2013, the year before Ip started high school.

Ip, who stood among several young Earth Matter volunteers inside the Battery Maritime Terminal waiting to board the ferry to Governors Island on a Friday morning, also suggested paying students to sort cafeteria waste — an idea shared by Cohen.

“That would be more incentive to recycle and compost,” Ip said.

Annie Jiang, a senior at Midwood High School and another Earth Matter volunteer, said she first learned about composting after passing the Lower East Side Ecology Center in East River Park near her home in the Lower East Side. Midwood

Though Midwood High School participates in the organic collection program, according to the DOE, Jiang said it was her exposure to the Ecology Center site that inspired her to try composting at home.

“I compost in my home, my family does it,” Jiang said. “At first they thought it was a bit weird, but they were open and they tried it.”

Jiang, who writes about zero waste initiatives for her school newspaper, the Argus, said school-based composting could similarly motivate and acclimate students and their families.

“My school is known for its science classes but we don’t talk about composting,” she said. “I think they could educate students more and make it more accessible.”

McDermott, the DOE’s Sustainability Director, told City Limits that the Office of Sustainability “provides central, borough, and also school-wide trainings, professional development, events, and other supports such as grants, challenges, and recognition. The ability to provide in-person outreach support at schools makes a big difference in school participation and enthusiasm.”

In addition, she said, the office trains school food staff on “program procedures and best practices.”

“We work with building staff, administration, School Food, teachers, Sustainability Coordinators, students, parents, community groups, and the City to drive forward sustainability operations and education in all schools,” she continued. “Schools need support to not only know what to do, but also on the “how” and “why” on an ongoing basis as well.”

CityPlate, City Limits’ series on food policy, is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.