Students at Carmel High School and Carmel Middle School have been involved in an ambitious hands-on Organic to Energy Food Scrap Compost Pilot Project that is the first of its kind in a public school district in this region.
With the help of a $2,500 grant from the Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD) students at the two schools are collecting food scraps that are delivered to the MRWMD site north of Marina.
“We were chosen because of our district’s goals to conserve resources and reduce waste,” says Paula Terui, the principal and a teacher at Captain Cooper School, one of the three elementary schools in the CUSD. “This has been project-based learning.”
Ms. Terui heads the CUSD-wide environmental team, which is made up of representatives from throughout the school district.
The waste taken from Carmel High School and Carmel Middle School consists of normal food scraps that go into backyard composts, such as banana peels and apple cores, but also includes typical school lunchroom items such as leftover pizza and sandwiches and compostable plates, forks and trays.
The scraps are taken from the schools to the MRWMD site by Waste Management, the large waste collection and disposal company that is also a partner in this project. At the MRWMD site the scraps are loaded into its anaerobic digester, and over a process of 21 days the organic waste is converted to electricity and, with 90 more days of processing, compost for orchards and vineyards.
“The effort has been to divert as much organic waste as we can,” says Carmel High science teacher Jason Maas-Baldwin, who teaches Advanced Placement Environmental Science at Carmel High. “We have a designated compost bin that goes directly to the anaerobic digester.”
At Carmel High that main receptacle is in the cafeteria.
“The students have been fantastic” in supporting the program, Mr. Maas-Baldwin adds, also praising the MRWMD. “It’s an impressive facility and they have helped us make it possible to make composting here a reality.”
Carmel Middle School teacher Darrell Steely notes that environmental consciousness is very prevalent at the school, with virtually everything being recycled.
“Our principal, Ken Griest, has removed all the trash cans,” Mr. Steely says. “The goal is zero waste. Our food services have bent over backwards to make it work.”
All of the composting “reduces what goes to the landfill,” says Mr. Steely, who also teaches at Carmel High. “It teaches students to think where their waste goes, and it empowers them.”
Kimberle Herring, Public Education Coordinator for the MRWMD, says the combined efforts with the CUSD are “part of our organic to energy program. We are providing support and helping with education. Waste Management provides the collection containers. It was a natural fit with the Carmel Unified School District.”
The MRWMD’s anaerobic digester began operations in 2013. It allows the energy value of organic materials to be harvested prior to composting.
The Waste Management District’s neighboring public agency, the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency, receives the electricity produced through anaerobic digestion.
The MRWMD explains that after food scraps and other compostable materials complete their 21-day cycle in the anaerobic digester, the material is then transferred to an outdoor composting process for the next 60 to 90 days. Eventually, the organic materials have decomposed into a fine soil amendment. The last step in the process is a screening, or sifting, which removes any contaminants that may have been mixed with the food material.