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Waste not: Composting program means less waste at Shawnee Mission schools

Kids in the Shawnee Mission School District are adding composting to their list of ways to be kind to the planet.
Kids in the Shawnee Mission School District are adding composting to their list of ways to be kind to the planet. Photo provided

The saying used to go “reduce, reuse, recycle” — but some local schools are adding another element to that plan: composting. What began as a grassroots effort at one elementary school has spread to 33 buildings in the Shawnee Mission School District, and last week, Johnson County’s board of commissioners recognized the district’s efforts in an environmental awards ceremony.

One of the more recent schools to implement the composting program in its cafeteria was Westridge Middle School, which has about 860 students. The effect was immediate. One day of cafeteria waste produced 209.8 pounds of recyclables and compost and only 20 pounds of trash to go to the landfill, according to Joan Leavens, sustainability and community engagement coordinator for Shawnee Mission.

At Shawnee Mission South, in the first week of the program, the school recycled or composted 97 percent of its cafeteria waste, according to Principal Todd Dain.

Dain said he’s proud, not just of how the students at his school are implementing the program, but also of how students at Indian Woods Middle School and the six south-area elementary schools are doing so as well.

Like the school’s colors, Dain said, “the south area is green in addition to being green and gold.”

At the end of 2016, the program had 20 schools, but 13 others have joined this semester, and Leavens said she expects all of Shawnee Mission’s schools and other buildings to be following the same recycling and composting program by the end of next school year.

The first compost project started at Briarwood Elementary in 2008, spearheaded by parent Luci Lee. Because of its success, the district brought 10 other schools into the mix over the next three years. At that point, the project received recognition from the Mid-America Regional Council. By 2015, it was part of the district’s strategic plan to implement it district-wide.

Many of the schools already had recycling programs, but this new effort, along with the composting, will help standardize the practices among all the different buildings.

The project itself is simple and straightforward for students and staff to follow. In addition to trash and recycling bins, there are compost bins in the cafeterias with signs that show what items can or cannot go into each bin.

“Our food service has done a fantastic job of helping us be successful. They have already done source reduction,” Leavens said.

Source reduction means the school does not serve food in plastic foam containers, and most of the serving containers it does use are recyclable or reusable.

For the first week of each school’s program, Leavens and other district personnel, along with representatives from Johnson County’s department of health and environment, are on hand to answer questions and help set things up.

“There are challenges at each age level. The high schools have the most students, but kindergarteners — it takes them a little bit of time to learn the system, because they’re sorting their trash, rather than just dumping it,” Leavens said.

The district partners with Missouri Organic Recycling to pick up the bags of compostable materials three times a week. As part of the deal, the district also buys back completed compost at a reduced rate and uses it in its school gardens and its urban farm.

Leavens estimated that two-thirds of the schools in the district have gardens right now.

“We’re able to say to our students, ‘Remember the compost you’re putting the bin in the cafeteria? This is what it looks like when it comes back.’ We tell them it’s going to be turned into compost to grow more food. They’re actually participating in that cycle of life,” Leavens said.

Using a commercial composting operation allows the schools to include meat, fat and bones in the compost without worrying about potential pathogens. Leavens said Missouri Organic’s process heats the compost to a certain level to eliminate any problematic microorganisms.

Leavens pointed to the food service and custodial staff for the success of the program.

“(They) need to be given the kudos for what they’ve done,” she said. “We’re finding 80 percent to 90 percent of our total waste is recycled or composted.”From June to December of 2016, that translated to 141,625 pounds of compost produced from district food waste.

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