By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN - Empty milk cartons, broken pencils, used paper towels, and banana peels might seem like waste, but at Delano Elementary School (DES), these items don’t belong in the garbage.
DES implemented an organics recycling program last fall, and students have learned to separate biodegradable materials so that they can be taken to a compost site.
“This is the first school [to do this] in Wright County,” commented Dave Hepfl of Randy’s Environmental Services in Delano.
The program is already widespread in Hennepin County, which is subsidizing its schools’ efforts to recycle in lunchrooms.
Delano has made organics recycling profitable without subsidies, however, by including classrooms and restrooms.
“Implementing the program throughout the building made it possible for this program to pay for itself, save the district some money, and do even more to limit what is being sent to the landfill,” noted Delano Elementary head custodian Scott Yanke. “If DES had only done the program in the cafeteria, it would not have been economically feasible.”
Saving green by going green
For Yanke, the most attractive part of the organics program is cost savings.
“We’re looking for every possible way to save money, and waste removal is an inevitable expense for any building with 900 people in it,” he noted. “At the time, I was told that it was about $50 a ton to send waste to the landfill, and $15 a ton for the compost pile.
“Looking at our waste removal bills, I could see a savings simply by diverting what we could to the organics pile instead of the landfill.”
Commercial trash hauling is significantly more expensive due to a 17-percent state tax, according to Hepfl. With organics recycling, that tax is eliminated.
The cost savings of organic is somewhat offset, however, by the price of biodegradable trash bags, which can range from 50 cents to $1.25 each. In contrast, traditional trash bags are typically 3 or 4 cents each.
For Delano Elementary, that trade-off has been worth it, though, according to Yanke.
“Our landfill waste has dropped by at least 20 percent,” he noted. “Instead of five overflowing pickups for the landfill a week, Delano Elementary now has three, and is getting close to thinking about two.”
Randy’s Environmental Services picks up the organics container filled with more than 8 cubic yards of compostable waste once a week.
“While I wish we could drop our landfill waste by another day, we aren’t quite there yet,” Yanke noted.
When DES began the program, Yanke was surprised by the wide range of compostable items.
“Basically, if it isn’t plastic or metal, it can be diverted to the compost pile,” he said. “Not only is leftover food composted, but so are broken pencils, milk cartons, napkins, paper towels, and even vacuum cleaner bags.”
A collaborative effort
Students and staff have been a big help in getting this program off the ground, according to Yanke.
“Classroom teachers labeled their waste containers ‘organics’ and ‘garbage,’ and taught their students to source-separate their trash,” Yanke said. “In the cafeteria, there are separate waste containers for leftover milk, organics, and waste like plastics and Styrofoam.”
Although many students have readily adapted to the change, adults seem to have a harder time.
“Neither evening groups nor parents who come for lunch have quite grasped the idea of separating their waste,” Yanke said. “It’s fun watching the students tell the adults what goes into each container. Habits are a hard thing to break, and if you’ve never had to think about throwing waste away, it can be different.”
Because many people don’t separate their waste at home, educating more than 800 elementary students how to do this has been a process, he added.
The organics recycling program is one way DES is helping families become more aware of the world around them, and the impact they can have on the environment.
“And, all of that is being done outside of the normal classroom curriculum,” Yanke noted.
In addition to organics, DES has been recycling cardboard for many years, filling a 2-yard container on a weekly basis. Food cans, foil potato chip bags, and juice pouches are also recycled through a separate program.
These efforts are just some of the ways that DES goes “beyond the basics,” according to Yanke.