Editorial: Composting: Kids have got it down pat

(Editor’s Note: Our regular “Ask the Recycling Maven” columnist Amy Donovan is on vacation this month. In its place, we’re offering this editorial about her work in the schools.)

Thanks to Amy Donovan, program manager of the 21-town Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, our kids are better composters than most of us adults. In fact, they’re so good that the district has attained a milestone: As reported recently, 38 schools around the county, including seven public high schools and five private schools, divert all food and paper waste from the cafeterias and kitchens into compost or livestock feed programs.

Instead of just tossing any lunch remains into a garbage can to be hauled away to the dump, children learn from an early age to throw non-compostable items in a trash bin, compostables like lunch remnants and the paper napkins and trays that held their lunch into another bin, and leftover milk or soup into a large bucket and colander arrangement.

“It’s very impressive because they’re reducing the trash coming from the kitchens and cafeterias, often up to 90 percent,” said Donovan.

Donovan harnessed a three-year, $30,000 Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) School Recycling Assistance grant to pay for the programs, equipment and signage to make the programs successful. The grant ended on June 30, but the composting activities will continue, thanks to Donovan’s unflagging stewardship of the program.

The earlier, the better

In Greenfield last May, at the Academy of Early Learning, 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children paid rapt attention to Donovan’s PowerPoint presentation about recycling. As reported by columnist Pat Leuchtman, the children were all eager to show that they knew the difference between items that could go into a compost bin and those that could not. Then, Donovan took the children outside to see the new garden compost bin. Finally, the preschoolers peeked into the big dumpster where cafeteria recycling bags are dumped. “I was impressed by the children’s attentive engagement,” said Leuchtman.

Donovan’s not the only environmental evangelist in the schools. In Orange this spring, Jack Golden, the comedic “expert” Dr. T, drew on his bag of vaudeville and circus tricks to juggle and joke his way through a world of waste, entertaining young audiences at Dexter Park and Fisher Hill schools while sharing his lesson that rubbish is a resource that is too good to throw away.

Massachusetts leads the nation in efforts to protect our climate and reduce emissions, and Franklin County leads the state in school, transfer station and business composting. As a result, the state has turned to the Franklin County district for help in producing a “how to” video for schools statewide to institute composting programs.

We hope the takeaway of such a video is the importance of reaching out to kids at an early age to educate them in environmental stewardship.

Ultimately, the payoff comes when the children take their lessons home with them and share them with their families.

“Right now, it’s second nature to them,” said Peter Blake, custodian at Northfield Elementary School which, along with Pioneer Valley Regional School, set up the county’s first school composting programs in 2000. “They’ve been doing it since they were in preschool. So, as they move up through (the grades), they all know the milk carton goes here, the food goes here and the trash goes there… They know.

“Now, we just need to teach the adults.”

Author: Going Green

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