Robinson Elementary: Shining Example of Food Waste Diversion

A pilot program to recycle cafeteria waste at Robinson Elementary School succeeds with thoughtful design and a commitment to training.

“If your food has lost its taste, it doesn’t have to go to waste!”

Sophia, a 5th grade student at Robinson Elementary School in the Kirkwood School District, guides visitors from the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District and the Saint Louis County Department of Public Health through the school cafeteria and explains the food waste collection process. The school is composting its food waste through a commercial waste hauler. Compost collection is an expensive service and can be challenging to do well. Robinson is doing a great job, and the visitors want to see what the school has done to make its program so successful.

Robinson Elementary, with an enrollment of 461 students, is in the middle of the first of six lunch periods. Approximately 80 kindergarten students are seated at large round tables eating their lunches and talking with friends. On the menu, hamburgers and French fries. It’s noisy and busy. In the middle of the cafeteria is the waste/recycling/composting station.

Sophia explains how students use the station to dispose of what’s left over from their lunches. As the lunch period is ending a teacher calls out, “When you have finished your lunch, it’s time for recycling!”

Some of the students have finished eating and are using the station. The first stop is a low table where there is a large bowl to collect straws and plastic utensils. Students empty juice and milk cartons into a slop bucket. The empty cartons are then put into the recycling bin. Students are also recycling cardboard, plastic packaging, paper lunch bags, and bottles.

The next container is the trash. Juice pouches, chip bags, sandwich bags, and plastic wrap all go in.

The last stop is a compost collection bin that is a bright yellow 90-gallon rolling cart. All food waste, paper napkins, and the compostable trays are dropped inside.

The company that provides the composting service to the school picks up full carts and leaves clean, empty carts in their place.

These kindergartners need very little assistance, and the students can go through the process fairly quickly. Chef Marino, from the visiting school district observed, “You can see they are really thinking about what to do with their items.”

Sophia notices a chip bag that was dropped into the compost bin. She reaches for a brightly colored grabbing tool kept at the station and uses it to remove the wrapper and put it in the trash. She says that the older students pretty much police their own lunch period and that everyone likes to use the grabber when needed.

This program was jump-started by grant funding provided by the Saint Louis County Department of Public Health – Solid Waste Management Program. The funds used are generated by a voter approved 5% surcharge on tipping fees assessed on the tons of trash deposited in landfills located in St. Louis County. The money is used to promote waste reduction projects throughout the county. Grant money was used by Robinson Elementary for the cost of the equipment and to underwrite the first year of compost pickup.

The school is fortunate to have an active parent teacher organization and to be in a community that has high recycling participation rates.

Parent volunteers were easy to recruit. Training of the staff and volunteers began before the start of the school year. Students practiced using the station before the compost collection service began to help ensure that the program would run in an efficient manner with minimum contamination.

The collection station was rearranged, tweaked, and re-tweaked. Simple additions such as bowls and buckets to collect the straws, utensils, and milk, help to keep the single-stream recycling and the compost free of contamination. The slop bucket is emptied into the compost container when it gets full.

Parents volunteered at every lunch period for the first four weeks of school to help students learn the process. Adults working with the program made example lunch trays by gluing pictures of the foods and other items and displaying it above the compost bin. Similar signs using the real objects attached to them allow students to quickly identify specific recyclable and compostable items on their lunch trays. As the school year progressed the volunteers were no longer needed and the students are now responsible for using the system correctly with minimal assistance from staff.

Before composting its food waste, Robinson Elementary generated 30 bags of cafeteria trash each day. After implementing the program the number is down to five. The reduction in the amount of trash is a two-fold win. In addition to the food waste being collected, the setup also captures single-stream recycling more efficiently.

The company that collects the food waste from the school has remarked that of all his customers, Robinson is one of the best in keeping its collection contaminate free. That is a testament to the thoughtful design of the system and the commitment to training at the beginning of the program.

This has been a successful pilot and with a commitment from their PTO and their District, the program will continue in the future, independent of grant subsidies. As cafeteria food waste collections become more common, Robinson serves as a shining example of “how to do it right”.

Contact us if you would like more information on how to start food waste collection at your school: mlilly@stlouiscounty.com

Photo #1 Principal Jennifer Sisul and a parent volunteer.

Photo #2 At the beginning of the school year, students learned how to sort their lunch waste with assistance from volunteers and school staff.

Photo #3 At the end of school in May, the waste station setup is two sided and in the middle of the cafeteria. Having two sides prevented traffic jams and allowed the students to clean up quickly.