One by one, the children at Public School 30 on Staten Island dumped their uneaten bananas into a bin in the back of their raucous cafeteria, each greenish-yellow missile landing with a thud. Thud. Thud.
John Sullivan, 9, a fourth grader, said bananas “make my stomach hurt.” Julianna Delloso, 6, a first grader, said “they taste funny.” And Joseph Incardone, 7, also in first grade, was almost gleeful as he explained why he, too, had chucked his unpeeled banana. “I didn’t like it,” he said.
The sad voyage of fruits and vegetables from lunch lady to landfill has frustrated parents, nutritionists and environmentalists for decades. Children are still as picky and wasteful as ever, but at least there is now a happier ending — that banana-filled bin is a composting container, part of a growing effort to shrink the mountains of perfectly good food being hauled away to trash heaps every year
New York City’s school composting program, kicked off just two years ago by parents on the Upper West Side, is now in 230 school buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island, and is expected to more than double in size and reach all five boroughs in the fall, with an ultimate goal of encompassing all 1,300-plus school buildings.
Depending on where the school is, the uneaten and half-eaten leftovers are sent to a compost heap at a former Staten Island landfill or to upstate New York or Delaware, where the slop is churned into nutrient-enriched dirt that farmers or landscape architects can buy. Eventually, the city will send some scraps to a wastewater treatment plant in Brooklyn, where “digesters” turn garbage into usable gas.
“There’s a lot of carbon in that banana that’s going to end up growing something else in your garden at home,” John T. Shea, the chief of the Education Department’s school facilities, said. “It’s the circle of life, baby.”
The hope is that by building up composting in school, the city will help the environment, instill a sense of conservation in schoolchildren and, critically, save some money. The city paid $93 per ton in 2013 to dump in landfills, up from $68 in 2004. Composting saves the city $10 to $50 per ton, because the cost is offset by the sale of the end product, according to the Sanitation Department.
Much of New York’s compost stream is a result of nutrition rules that require every child to be served healthy food, and health rules that ban re-serving unwrapped food once it has been placed on a lunch tray, for fear of contamination and to make sure food is served at proper temperatures. For those reasons, an uneaten apple or banana or even an unopened milk carton cannot be given to another child.
Depending on viewpoint, the sheer amount of school food now being composted is either impressive or depressing.
Even with less than a quarter of school buildings participating, the weight of all the discarded bananas and other scraps — including anything children can put into their mouths, from chips to sandwich meat to salads — came to 1,400 tons between September and March, compared with 450 tons during the entire 2012-13 school year.
Other cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, have been composting school food for years. Chicago has, too, though there the effort has been smaller in scope — the scraps are mostly kept on school grounds, like in gardens, and are limited to fruit and vegetables. But the district is trying commercial composting at one school, Blaine Elementary, and seeing if it can save money.
Chicago has not felt the same imperative as New York, said Meredith C. McDermott, the sustainability manager for Chicago’s schools. “Landfills in the Midwest are cheap, so that’s why we have been slower” to fully embrace composting, she said.
New York’s school composting efforts are part of an expanding citywide program in which residents are being asked to separate their scraps for weekly pickups by city sanitation trucks. The city is also teaming up with school districts in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Orlando to makebulk purchases of compostable plates that are used in place of plastic foam plates, said Eric S. Goldstein, the chief executive for school support services for the New York City Education Department.
Those plates go straight into the compost bins — at least when students get it right.
At P.S. 30, students done with their lunch have a choice of three plastic bins: one for landfill garbage like plastic bags, foam cups and wrappers; one for recyclables, like metal, glass, plastic and milk cartons; and one for food scraps. Nearby is a red bucket where unconsumed milk is poured; it is later sent down a drain.
The assembly line operation showed the mind-bending task at hand: Some children wrongly threw the new trays into the landfill bin. Others hastily dumped leftover chips, bag and all, into the food bucket, which was catching all manner of the day’s offerings: intact or half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese sandwiches, cucumbers, salad bar detritus and those bananas, which, truth be told, looked a day or so shy of being ripe.
A “green team” of students — wearing latex gloves or holding plastic talons — picked out wayward junk. One of them, Shannon Ahr, 10, said they had noticed that the younger children seemed to get it right more often that the older ones.
After school, the bagged food scraps go on the curb. They are picked up each day by Sanitation Department trucks, then driven to the compost sites, where they are picked clean of contaminants, like plastic bits, and laid on a bed of dry wood chips. More wood chips are laid on. The muck is turned, so oxygen gets in to aid decomposition. Six to nine months later: market-ready dirt.
Of course, it would be much simpler if the decomposition took place inside the child.
“Obviously we can’t force them to have it,” Joseph Napolitano, P.S. 30’s assistant principal, said as he stood by the lunch line, watching each plate get its obligatory banana. At least now, though, he said, “It’s really being recycled whether they eat it or not; it’s not really a waste.”