Colored bins at the Hollis Primary School cafeteria let students take the lead in sorting their food waste during lunchtime. Courtesy
For students at Hollis Primary School, diverting food waste from landfills is no difficult task. As many towns in New Hampshire struggle to get their residents to divert food waste, a program that was started through a grant fund at the school has children as young as five sorting waste generated during lunchtime.
The WWF’s Food Waste Warrior Program awarded the school a grant to educate its students about the issue of food waste and inspire them to take action. By transforming cafeterias and lunchrooms into classrooms, the program aims to make students pause and reflect on the amount of waste they produce, through measurement.
At the end of every day, Tara Happy, the school’s environmental science teacher who has taken the lead on this program, collects and weighs all the trash. She keeps track of all food waste, including milk boxes, ketchup packets, and kitchen waste.
Instead of composting the food waste, a truck comes in at the end of each week and transports it to Vanguard Renewables, which operates an anaerobic digester in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Food wastes are broken down by bacteria without oxygen during anaerobic digestion to produce biogas, which is then used to generate electricity.
Since the program’s inception in October 2022, the school has kept over 3,500 pounds of food waste out of landfills.
Food waste accounts for 25% of the municipal solid waste that ends up in the country’s landfills, according to the figures reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2018.
When food scraps tossed in the trash end up in landfills, they decompose anaerobically and release greenhouse gases like methane, a gas more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide that can increase global temperatures. Diverting food waste not only reduces methane emissions but saves landfill space.
However, not everything goes to the digester. Students save food that is still good to consume, such as fruit cups, cheese sticks and individual bags of apple slices. Nonperishables are donated to food pantries, while perishables are consumed by the school nurse and afterschool club students and distributed to anyone who is hungry.
Even before the school secured the grant, students and teachers at the school had been diverting food waste by composting vegetable and fruit scraps for the past five years. Happy said that every classroom in the school has a compost bucket, and the compost is used to feed the plants in the school’s garden.
But last winter, the amount of compost they had collected was too much for the school garden. Happy was concerned that they wouldn’t have enough space for it and began looking for alternatives. That’s when she contacted Paul Karpawich, director of operations at Sustainable Transitions, LLC, who assisted her in the grant writing process in order to secure the WWF funding for the food diversion program.
Karpawich, who is working on getting towns and schools to work together on food issues, says the program’s goal is to get people to measure what they throw away so they can learn how it can be managed.
“It’s going really well at the school,” said Karpawich. ” They [school] is starting to see milk numbers come way down and the kids realize that they don’t need to eat as much, they don’t need to throw away as much.”
At lunchtime, Happy said, the children separate their waste into colored bins labeled recyclables, trash, and food waste without the intervention of her or the teachers. They have taken ownership of the process, said Happy.
“They are very proud of themselves,” said Happy. “When they see their efforts multiply and become a huge number, their little eyes light up.”
May Kelly, a third-grade student who has volunteered as a compost helper on several occasions, believes that this program has changed her perspective on the importance of recycling and the food waste issue. She said if every school in New Hampshire did this, it could spread across the country and Hollis Primary School could be the catalyst for something incredible.
“I feel composting has a bright future,” Kelly said. “Without a healthy environment, humans cannot survive and hopefully it’ll get people to want to save the Earth.”
The ideal situation would be to have a digester in New Hampshire, but Karpawich explained that the cost of hauling the food waste to Massachusetts is slightly higher, but it is a green premium, the additional expense of choosing a sustainable process. The biogas produced by anaerobic digestion is used to generate electricity, which is then sold to utilities in exchange for credits. The credits are then transferred to the Haverhill public school system.
“Anaerobic digesters are not cheap and so we would have to get funding,” said Karpawich. “But, yes, we should ideally put one that can service Hollis, Amherst, Milford, even Nashua, and create energy for the local area.”