Mt. Blue students start food composting program

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FARMINGTON — About 30 pounds of leftover peas and carrots, hamburgers, celery sticks, banana peels, apple cores and other food scraps were collected in bins at Mt. Blue High School’s cafeteria in one day this week.

That’s a respectable haul for student volunteers working on a new composting project that has them collecting, weighing and generating enthusiasm among their peers.

The goal is to get composting started at the current school, which is in the midst of a $63 million expansion and renovation, so it can be carried over to the next generation of students when the Mt. Blue Learning Campus opens in 2013.

“Environmentalism doesn’t suffer from of a lack of support. It suffers from of a lack of available projects. What we did was supply the school with a project that a bunch of people could work on,” senior Kjell Nordstrom, one of the compost project organizers, said.

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“What I believe we are really hoping for is for more and more people to become involved,” he said. “This project allowed us to get involved with our school and community.”

The Sustainable Blue team, which grew out of the alternative energies program taught by Jake Bogar, is leading the way. But after their four-week pilot project ended this spring that developed data on weight and volume collected per day, students were stymied.

There was no money to pay a stipend for someone to transport the food-filled totes every day to Sandy River Recycling Association’s composting facility 10 miles away on Farmington Falls Road.

Until this week, the food waste was being dumped back into the school’s regular trash.

“We saw kids’ energy in the beginning. Then people didn’t seem to care as much about the waste we are actually throwing away. We didn’t have a plan what to do next,” team leader and senior Hannah Allen said. “We need to keep up the momentum.”

Enter the association’s director Ron Slater.

Last week, he met with the students, along with Jo Josephson, chairman of the association’s board of directors, to talk about the project. Slater was impressed enough to offer to pick up the totes each day himself.

He also invited students to tour the facility to see how the compost is made and how the metal, paper, cardboard and plastic containers collected by the association’s 20 member towns are handled and baled for shipping and sale.

“We need to show people the full circle of what you are doing,” he told them. “You just need to get over this block.”

Team members said they didn’t want the project to stop, especially since there is a growing acceptance and cooperation by the student body.

“This is not as simple as just putting the scraps into a bucket. A lot of psychology is involved to change people’s habits, and the success of this depends on every student doing it,” Allen said.

Sully Jackson, a sophomore, said there is an advantage to getting started before the new school opens.

“Now would be a good time to strike. Otherwise, we will be behind,” he said.

Mt. Blue’s scraps will be added to the food “residuals” collected from ongoing successful recycling and composting programs at the University of Maine at Farmington and the W. G. Mallett Elementary School in Farmington.

The material is stored on a concrete pad where Slater mixes it with manure, shredded paper and leaves, monitors it for temperature and turns it so microbes get enough oxygen to break down the organic materials.

In about eight months, it will be a dark, crumbly, nutrient-rich material ready to be added to landscaping and gardening projects at the schools and sell to Farmington residents.

To generate interest in composting, team members have put up posters around school, put large “feed me” mouths on top of collection bins in the cafeteria, sent out emails to students, and announced it at an assembly. And at the start of each lunch, co-team leader, senior Tim Andrews, gets up on a bench in the cafeteria and urges his peers to participate.

Supporting the project have been the food service staff and custodian Laura Hadley, who met with the team and offered ideas on how best to coordinate the collection.

Bogar’s program also includes studying a planned wind power generator, solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling that will be incorporated into the new Learning Campus.

At the meeting, he said the momentum around composting was hard to sustain with the construction going on and without a place to do their own on-site composting.

“Looking to the future, in the new building, we will be able to set this up to be near the greenhouse and kitchen. I think we could generate over 50 pounds of food scraps a day,” he said.

Josephson, who has been volunteering to help with the project, said she was impressed with the students’ determination.

“You are not only building a new school. You are building a new attitude,” she told them. “Thank you for your perseverance. It is wonderful. You are teaching others civic responsibility at the local level.”

Sam Morris, from the State Planning Office, works with community recycling and composting programs. He said the value of a school composting project is that it “empowers students by giving them a specific action to help their community and the earth.”

The only other school composting program his office is working with at the East Auburn Community School and the Auburn Middle School, which received a $4,000 grant to develop and implement a combined leaf/yard waste and food scrap program.

Also, Cape Cod Hill School in New Sharon has its own on-site composting bins for cafeteria food scraps and leaves, according to school officials.

Other compost pilot organizers from Mt. Blue are Daniel Gamage, Dalton Kaplan, Alexandra Allen, Syrena Clark, Mali Obomsawin and Jake Correll.

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