A composting pilot program will be introduced to two Orange County elementary schools — Central Elementary and Hillsborough Elementary — this spring.
The program is a collaboration between the Board of Orange County Commissioners, Orange County Solid Waste Management, the Orange County Food Council and Brooks Contractors.
Sara Pitts, director of environmental health and safety for Orange County Schools, will oversee the project at both schools. She will work with site administrators and custodians, who will be responsible for the program's operation.
Pitts said one of the aims of the composting project is to reduce the amount of space food waste takes up in the landfill. Reducing food waste is a crucial part of the effort to curtail the amount of carbon dioxide and methane — greenhouse gasses emitted by food waste — in the atmosphere.
“In order to reduce our environmental impact as a county — specifically the goals set forth by the Orange County Climate Council — in reducing methane gas production, the County and Town of Hillsborough have been actively seeking businesses to participate in a food waste collection and composting program,” Pitts said.
According to a waste composition study from 2017 by the Orange County Solid Waste Department, food waste comprises 25.3 percent of total overall waste in Orange County, which is a larger percentage of total waste than anything else (including plastic, paper, electronic waste, etc). And food waste is part of the 46.5 percent of total waste that is compostable.
For Orange County Schools specifically, more than half of total waste is food waste. The study also found that Orange County Schools have a higher percentage of food waste than any other entity, including UNC dorms, UNC apartments and government offices.
Pitts identified the process as a tandem of steps. First, students and staff who dine in the cafeteria will be asked at the end of each meal to sort and discard their waste as applicable. The child nutrition department will also be reviewing preparation and serving practices to reduce the amount of waste produced. Custodians will be conducting audits of the amount of trash discarded to determine the effectiveness of the program at reducing the amount of landfill waste.
Blair Pollock, Orange County solid waste planner, said Orange County Solid Waste Management will be funding the composting pilot program at Hillsborough and Central Elementary from now until June.
“The schools came to us and said — as part of the County’s overall climate action plan — we want to reduce waste,” Pollock said. “Specifically, they want to focus on food waste generated from cafeterias as that is where the majority of food waste comes from.”
Pitts said the model will be similar to that of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
Renee Price, vice-chairperson of the Board of Orange County Commissioners, said she hopes the program will spread throughout all the schools in the county.
“I hope they can figure out the best practices from the pilot program, and find a model that can be easily replicated into other schools,” Price said. “I also think this is an excellent way to teach young children about food waste, so they can absorb these composting practices as they grow up.”
Hillsborough and Central Elementary’s cafeterias aren’t identical, though. One uses compostable food trays, while the other uses reusable trays. Pitts said this will allow each school to make more informed decisions about what supplies they need and what practices are best.
"I am extremely excited that Orange County Schools is transitioning our daily actions and operating protocol toward creating a more sustainable and environmentally friendly district, and the positive impacts that this may have on public health for our students and community," she said.