South Carolina wasted about 640,000 tons of food in 2016, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Now a teacher at Wade Hampton High School is trying to change that statistic — at least locally.
Jordahn Shiley, a biology teacher, has implemented a composting program to transform lunch leftovers students refuse to eat, as well as other cafeteria trash, into usable soil for the Upstate’s farmers, gardeners, and landscapers.
In November, Shiley won a $2,500 grant from DHEC for the Green Generals Conservation and Sustainability Club, which she co-sponsors. She then partnered with Atlas Organics, a Spartanburg-based waste diversion company, and taught students what materials can be composted. Now, after disposing of trash, they drop food scraps, milk cartons, and paper napkins into blue composting bins provided by Atlas.
Students have composted about 1,500 pounds of waste since January, according to Shiley.
“Our waste is literally making it full circle, going from the cafeteria to the ground to the farmers who grow produce to the farmers markets and then back to the table for consumption,” said Shiley. “I don’t know why other schools and businesses would not want to jump on this sustainability bandwagon.”
Atlas, which opened a compost facility at Greenville County’s Twin Chimneys Landfill in June, collects food waste from the school three times a week and brings it back to the facility, where it is combined with mulched yard waste.
The mixture then undergoes a 45-day aeration and monitoring process that converts waste into compost for agricultural, landscaping, and home gardening customers. Compost produces higher crop yields and decreases the use of chemicals and water, according to Leslie Rodgers, educator and compost coordinator for Atlas Organics.
“We’re excited to see Wade Hampton’s students and teachers diverting their food waste away from landfills,” Rodgers said. “Schools play a pivotal role in establishing proper disposal routines that will last a lifetime.”
Food scraps account for 21.6 percent of the nation’s waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. School food waste has skyrocketed by more than $1 billion annually since federal officials imposed strict restrictions on calories, fat, sugar, sodium, and other nutritional elements of school food in 2012. Students must now take at least three items, including one fruit or vegetable, even if they don’t want them.
Schools that have accumulated more food waste than they can handle have been forced to find creative ways of dealing with the overflow, including schools in New Mexico and Rhode Island that send their leftovers to pig farms.
Wade Hampton’s program seems to be catching on among students, with a few exceptions. “This food diversion plan has been a big transition for them, as we are changing their ways in thinking what trash is,” Shiley said.
“There’s still a good amount of food being wasted, so the message hasn’t sunk in completely,” Shiley said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll eventually eliminate food waste from our school and become more environmentally conscious.”
While the program’s funding ends in June, Shiley is brainstorming ways to continue the effort. “This could also encourage other schools in the area to try the same kind of initiative as they recognize that our large, 5A school is managing and maintaining a positive waste diversion plan,” she said.
“We don’t have enough money budgeted for the program right now because it would cost about $5,000 a year. But I really want to see this become a focus throughout our schools, and I will push it for as long as I can,” she added.
In 2002, the Greenville County School District and Greenville County Solid Waste Division joined efforts to promote mixed paper and cardboard recycling at each school. However, Wade Hampton is the district’s first high school to adopt a composting program, according to Rodgers.
“High school students usually contribute less food waste, because they’re able to choose their meals,” said Rodgers. “We’d love to work with more elementary and middle schools throughout Greenville County, because our goal is to plant these ideas of sustainability earlier rather than later.”
Atlas currently collects waste from various businesses throughout the state and multiple school districts in Spartanburg County.