Waste not, want not
As the owner of a summer camp, Joe Richardson has long been dedicated to environmental issues. The Bar-T Mountainside Challenge & Retreat Center and Summer Camp in Maryland runs on solar and geothermal energy; composting toilets save water. Richardson also runs after-school programs that include opportunities to learn about environmental issues. So when a teacher at a local high school asked him to help start a program to stop food waste from ending up in landfills, Richardson, a member of the Rotary Club of Southern Frederick County (Urbana), Maryland, seized the opportunity. He knew a lot about the logistics of garbage, having served on a special commission of Frederick County focused on the county’s waste stream. He combined all his knowledge and developed a program at Urbana High School to keep “Lunch Out of Landfills” that has rapidly expanded to other schools around Frederick County.
THE ROTARIAN: Why is it important to keep food waste out of landfills?
RICHARDSON: When you bury organics, they generate methane, which is a greenhouse gas. And there are transport costs for trash. We’ve reduced the amount of trash hauled to landfills.
TR: How serious a problem is food waste in school cafeterias?
RICHARDSON: It’s eye-popping. Before our program, Urbana Elementary School produced about 210 pounds of trash a day. More than 100 pounds of that was food, and 40 to 50 pounds of it was liquids. So we are diverting 70 percent of the trash by disposing of organics and liquids in separate receptacles — and that’s before we separate out the recyclables.
TR: In expanding the program, you focused on elementary schools. Why?
RICHARDSON: In high schools, you have to break habits ingrained for 10 years. But by the time our fifth graders are in high school, they will see sorting waste as simply what you do.
“We are diverting 70% of the trash by disposing of organics and liquids in separate receptacles.”
TR: How did your Rotary club get involved?
RICHARDSON: We wanted to broaden the program but couldn’t get funding. My club contributed to keep the program going for a year. Then other Rotary clubs raised $20,000 to fund an expansion to more schools for this year. But I don’t want Rotary clubs to pay for this. The money that is saved on dumpster pickups can then go to paying for the organics removal.
TR: What have you learned since you started the program?
RICHARDSON: You can’t set up the program and walk away. Rotarians and other people volunteer in cafeterias the first few weeks, helping kids to throw things into the right bins. But then you have to monitor the contamination of the waste stream. Serious contamination with things such as plastic straws in the organic waste bin becomes a deal-breaker for the composting companies. You have to get the principal and building services to buy in. You have to have a place to take the organic waste for composting. If you don’t have all of that lined up, it’s hard to get started.
TR: Does the program help students recognize food waste as a problem?
RICHARDSON: The kids certainly are aware. I was visiting a school to check on the program. In the office I heard a parent ask, “What’s going on in this school? My daughter yelled at me for throwing a banana peel in the trash.” I’m overhearing all this and thinking, I want to give that kid a high-five.
— HANK SARTIN
• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.