Growing Green: Composting & Reuse in Green Star Schools

One year after regional compost guidelines changed, Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools program is demonstrating how innovative approaches to education and reusables make for cleaner compost

This May 5–11, environmental and recycling businesses, organizations, and individuals across the US are commemorating International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW), an annual event highlighting the many benefits of using compost and recycling organics such as food scraps and yard debris. 

Progress Following Regional Compost Guidelines Changes

Here in Colorado’s Front Range, this year’s ICAW marks approximately one year since the region’s primary compost manufacturer took measures to reduce significant contamination challenges by limiting accepted materials to food scraps and yard trimmings only, excluding paper, paper towels, and compostable tableware. These changes prompted most restaurants and businesses to remove all compost bins from customer access. Schools that are part of Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools (GSS) program also needed to pause and adapt student participation in compost collections. Now, one year later, the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley School Districts participating in Eco-Cycle’s GSS program have innovated a shift in their operations to resume composting, accompanied by the use of reusable foodware over single-use products at school events, setting a precedent for other institutions and businesses to follow.

It is essential to teach students right there at the compost bin what is and isn’t compostable, so Eco-Cycle’s environmental educators go “out to lunch” in the school cafeterias every single day to help students as they’re clearing their trays, providing one-on-one training on correctly sorting food scraps at the compost bin. It has been extraordinarily successful, and GSS schools are proving that we can collect clean compost.

Eco-Cycle’s award-winning Green Star Schools program is the first in the nation to address waste reduction and the collection of compostables, in addition to recyclables, in every aspect of school life— from classrooms and hallways to cafeterias and special events. Composting is an essential component of the GSS program as food makes up 50–80% (by weight) of school cafeteria discards. With the addition of Colorado’s new free lunch program for all public school students, food waste has increased. Up to two-thirds of the discards from each GSS are kept out of landfills, which is almost double the national recycling and composting rate. The Eco-Cycle GSS program serves 66 regional schools in two districts—43 in Boulder Valley and 23 in St. Vrain Valley—educating 32,382 students and 4,093 staff members. The successes in these schools would not be possible without the partnerships between Eco-Cycle and custodial, kitchen, administrative, district, and municipal sustainability leadership.

The changes in compost guidelines presented a concerning lost opportunity for students because many of the schools have been composting for 19 years. Committed to giving students the opportunity to compost, Eco-Cycle’s GSS program, Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley School Districts, and individual schools innovated a shift in their operations to adapt to new composting procedures. Eco-Cycle’s team of environmental educators now go on-site in classrooms and cafeterias, providing extensive support in re-educating students and school staff about the changes. 

“Boulder Valley School District began composting with Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools Program in 2005. As a result of this partnership and with support from Boulder County, the City of Boulder, the Town of Superior, and the City/County of Broomfield, Boulder Valley School District has expanded to 43 Green Star Schools spanning two counties, with more to come,” said Ghita Carroll, BVSD Sustainability and Energy Officer. “For students in these schools, Zero Waste is part of their daily routine. Through their hands-on experience reducing waste, composting, and recycling, environmental conservation becomes less of an abstract concept and instead is the norm for these children.”

According to Curtis Leonard, Energy & Sustainability Specialist at St. Vrain Valley School District, “The Green Star Schools program has been an exceptional resource and cornerstone of sustainability programming in many of our schools at SVVSD. At the heart of St. Vrain Valley Schools’ Energy & Sustainability Program is a commitment to conscientiously managing waste and material flows. Through compost education initiatives and nurturing partnerships within our schools, Eco-Cycle and the Green Star Schools program are actively fostering an ethos of sustainability within the culture of our schools.” 

Reusable Zero Waste School Event Kits

Eco-Cycle’s environmental educators were also committed to supporting the schools in composting at events, parties, and meetings. Historically, these gatherings typically involved the use of single-use compostable cutlery, plates, and cups, but these items are no longer allowed in the compost stream. The Eco-Cycle schools team solved that problem with reusables and partnerships. The Town of Superior and the City/County of Broomfield funded the distribution of 43 Zero Waste Event reusable kits. Each kit contains a class set of reusable/washable plates, cups, cutlery, and napkins. With a grant from Boulder County, they will assemble additional kits and prioritize their distribution to Title I schools in both Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley School Districts in the fall. 

Students, parents, and faculty scrape their food scraps into the compost bin, then the reusable plates and utensils are washed in the kitchen or by parent volunteers, and are ready to use again. Reuse reduces waste, saves money and natural resources, results in cleaner compost without disposables, and is a local climate solution.

Keeping organic matter like food scraps out of the landfill is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When landfilled, organic discards don’t just rot, they decompose anaerobically, meaning “without oxygen,” and in the process, they create methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. But if food scraps, yard trimmings and other organic matter are diverted to compost manufacturing and applied to landscapes, they have the opposite effect—they can draw down atmospheric carbon and store it beneficially in the soil. It will also build soil that grows more nutritious food crops and retains water, all without polluting synthetic chemicals. 

As students learn in school about the importance of composting and what materials belong in the compost bin, they take that knowledge home to their families, leading to increased participation in community compost programs.

“Schools are a key part of recycling and compost education, so the Town was thrilled to be able to start Green Star Schools last year,” said Alexis Bullen, Town of Superior Sustainability Manager. “We continue to look for strategies to reduce waste in the first place, which is why it was so exciting to be the first community to launch reusable Zero Waste Event kits for classroom parties and events. Eco-Cycle is a great partner to the Town of Superior and we hope to continue to increase compost collection in our community and make our waste stream more circular.”

Moving forward, Eco-Cycle is working to establish funding support and develop partnerships with more municipalities and school districts to expand access to the program. Support from the City/County of Broomfield means Broomfield schools are the next to be enrolled in Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools Program.