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Making Something From Nothing

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Recycling Scraps For Schools Garden’s Compost
By Claire Walla

When she came to Sag Harbor Elementary School 12 years ago, science teacher Kryn Olson saw quickly where her efforts were needed.

“Paper is our number one garbage here,” she said. At the time, the school didn’t make efforts to separate waste products.

So, on her own volition, she and a slew of student volunteers collected the school’s paper scraps each week and lugged each 80-pound load into her car and Olson herself would transport the materials to the local recycling center. She did this for about five years, she said, until all the physical labor took its toll.

Recycling efforts took a dip at the school for a few years, though Olson has recently revitalized efforts to recycle and keep the campus green—and then some.

Beginning in January, she will instill a composting program at the elementary school. Instead of disposing students’ food scraps along with other waste materials, this compost effort will churn all edible waste into nutrients the school will be able to use in its gardens.

Sag Harbor Elementary School has picked up a lot of momentum in recent months in the wake of its Eco-Walk project and, most recently, since environmental sustainability advocate Jonny Dubowsky visited to educate students on healthy habits. As part of his presentation, he introduced a composting method that creates a fertilizer called bokashi. Using no more than a couple of plastic buckets and natural grainy mixture, students can essentially pickle their food scraps, ultimately eliminating excess waste.

“It’s new and exciting!” Olson beamed. “After time, the natural organisms will develop and turn into something like apple cider,” she added, which is nutritious for plants and will be used to go on top of the nine new raised flower beds adjacent to the Eco-Walk. “It’s the best plant food you can find, and it’s not chemically produced,” she added.

The bokashi mixture is a combination of household products like wheat bran, sea salt, ceramic powder, hot water and molasses. These ingredients are mixed together to create a relatively dry substance with only 30 percent moisture. A layer of this bokashi is placed in a serrated spackle bucket, which sits inside a regular spackle bucket without the holes. Students can then place all food scraps—including meats, dairy and processed foods—on top of the mixture, and this layer of food is covered with more bokashi.
Because the mixture has to be kept in an anaerobic state (which essentially means it has to stay covered), the process produces very little odor, which is why Olson will be able to keep the compost inside her classroom.

Typical composting efforts are much more complicated and labor intensive. Using only biodegradable ingredients like fruits and veggies, in addition to yard waste and manure, most compost piles need proper aeration and temperature regulation in order to make plant-friendly and nutrient-rich soils. The school district’s supervisor of buildings and grounds, Montgomery Granger, said he has looked into introducing a composting program at Pierson Middle/High School, but with a cafeteria to contend with, the situation is different than it is at the elementary school.

“It takes a lot of TLC to create quality compost,” he added. “And we are currently understaffed.”

The industry standard for the ratio of custodians to square-foot of property is 1 to 20,000 square feet. Currently, the high school has 5.5 custodial workers for 140,000 square feet, which puts it 1.5 custodians below the recommended average, he said.

And because the school is short-staffed, Granger said there are currently no efforts to separate recyclables at the high school, although he is quick to point out that the school’s waste does get sorted when it’s taken to the town transfer station.

Though Pierson has no plans to implement a composting program any time soon, Granger said he has the budget to begin buying quality compost to feed the grasses and plants at the school.

As for Olson, her compost project will start small, with only one bokashi mixture based in Olson’s science classroom. Because the elementary school does not have a cafeteria, students eat their lunches in the classroom, which will make it easy for Olson to monitor bokashi activity. The project will operate on somewhat of a trial basis for the first month, then Olson will assess the project and—if all goes well—take efforts to expand the program school-wide.