By: Jean Bonhotal and Mary Schwarz
Cornell Waste Management Institute
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Sustainability and going green are all the rage. For most of us, recycling glass, plastic, aluminum, metal and cardboard, newspaper and other paper products has become automatic, but what about the rest of our waste. Organics such as food scraps, food soiled paper products, leaves and grass clippings comprise over 60% of our waste stream and are completely recyclable. That’s where composting steps in; organic waste can be recycled by composting and the resulting product can be used to improve soil quality and help plants grow. You can get things started. From small worm compost bins in the classroom to composting lunch scraps outdoors, we can make a difference one apple core at a time!
Did you know that worms can eat leftovers? “You mean I can have a pet that eats garbage and helps plants grow?” Youth who have been exposed to vermicomposting (or worm composting) are impressed by the efficiency of this system. The worms work in a container and help process food scraps giving off only an earthy smell. Kids, 4-H leaders and teachers realize the potential of worm composting to manage waste and it’s a great way to teach ecology, biology, sustainability and caring for the workforce (the worms and other microbes that do the work!). The worms – red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) process 2-3 times their weight in food each day. Kids enjoy taking turns feeding the worms, but need to be careful not to overfeed! As time goes on, the worms work tirelessly to eat your leftovers and produce compost. Resources from Cornell: http://compost.css.cornell.edu/worms/basics.html
Composting lunch scraps on school grounds:
5th and 6th grade science classes at Candor Elementary School in Candor, NY started learning about decomposition through composting. Decomposition involves all kinds of neat creepy, crawly critters you can see with your eyes, and microorganisms like bacteria and protozoa you will need a microscope to see. The students at Candor wanted to see these micro and macro organisms first hand, and do their part for sustainability. They learned what to do in a school program, purchased compost containers, and are happily composting food scraps from the cafeteria, shredded paper, lawn clippings and sawdust from the woodworking classes. Staff and the 6th graders help the younger kids separate their “compostables” from their trash. Students deliver the scraps to the compost unit, add the carbon source, sawdust and leaves, and mix it by giving it a full turn. The process will take about 6-9 months to produce compost that will then be mixed with soil for perennial plantings around the school. Students really like doing this because it makes them feel like they are doing something good and are making a difference for the planet. Resources for schools, teachers and families wishing to learn more about composting opportunities in schools can be found at: http://compost.css.cornell.edu/schools.html
In another example, Bunny Goodwin, a Master Gardener volunteer, worked with students to start a composting program at Keene Central School. They built concrete bins and layer their food and carbon source in the bins on a regular basis. Food collection begins in the school cafeteria and ends in the bountiful harvest of flowers and vegetables that sometimes become lunch. These composting programs prevent valuable organic waste from ending up in the landfill, provide a unique educational opportunity for students (and teachers as well) and nourishes and amends the soil in school gardens. In turn, many kids and teachers have started composting at home, multiplying the green effect.
For more information on composting in your school, at home or with your 4-H club, please visit the youth and teacher resources page on Cornell Waste Management’s websites at http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/resources.htm#youthteacher. The list of resources there include designs for building compost bins, activities for youth to carry out to learn about composting, worm composting basics, videos about composting and so much more!