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Composting Program Wins Grants, Increases Environmental Stewardship

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Heathwood’s longtime focus on environmental sustainability has often played out as study and stewardship of the abundant natural resources on our campus. Now, thanks to a couple of Columbia Connections and two grants secured by Columbia Connections Director Donnie Bain, we’re also composting.

Through our new composting program, Middle School students collect compostable food prep waste from the Dining Commons, place it in an earth tub, and tend to it until it becomes mulch. Compostable leftovers from lunch are also being bagged and picked up by Smart Recycling, which takes the material to ReSoil, a company that turns food waste into mulch.

“We were early pioneers in recycling and have always tried to be good stewards of this campus that we’re so blessed to have, so composting was the next logical step in sustainability,” said Mr. Bain.

Heathwood’s earth tub, which is in an enclosure adjacent to the Dining Commons and looks sort of like a very large pressure cooker, is simple to operate. Three times a week, students in Mr. Giovannone’s 6th grade science classes open the hatch, pour in any food waste they’ve collected, close the hatch again, and then turn a large wheel on the top of the tub to mix everything together. Because the composting process works best at certain temperatures and moisture levels, students also regularly monitor those.  After 3-4 weeks of proper care, the food waste becomes mulch.

While the first batch of homegrown mulch is still in progress, the goal is to give it to City Roots, another Columbia Connections partner, which farms several acres of fields on Heathwood’s property. In return, City Roots provides environmental and agricultural education to Heathwood students.

The partnership with Smart Recycling and ReSoil, which has been in place for a few months now, has allowed Heathwood to divert more than 2.4 tons of organic waste from landfills in the first 6 weeks of school alone. With the help of a new sorting system as they bus their plates at the end of lunch, students separate compostable materials—pretty much everything organic, from food scraps, to napkins, to bones—from noncompostable plastics. The compostable waste is collected in composting bags and picked up weekly by Smart Recycling and taken to ReSoil, which turns it into mulch.

Costs associated with establishing the composting program were underwritten by two grants of $1000 each—A DHEC Recycling Education grant, and a Richland County Conservation Education grant. These purchased shovels, gloves, a temperature probe, and compostable bags, and pay for hauling fees.

Although the program is still in its early stages, Mr. Bain said ReSoil has been impressed with how well Heathwood students are doing with sorting their compostables from their noncompostables. “The Dining Commons staff has all been really involved too,” he said. “Everyone has been on board.”

The next step in the composting program is to begin weighing the amount of food waste produced each day in the Dining Commons. Plans are being made to have particular groups or grade levels weigh the food waste at the end of each division’s lunch period and chart the amount of waste that’s produced daily and weekly. The end goal is to raise awareness of the volume of food waste being produced and, through that awareness, to decrease the waste over time.