Friday, April 25, 2008

Harding cafeteria goes 'zero-waste'


Not a garbage can in sight.
That’s one of the defining characteristics of the cafeteria and playground at Harding Elementary School, which was officially dubbed a “zero-waste” area yesterday by school leaders and Santa Barbara City officials.

In the place of garbage cans are plastic, yellow compost containers, where each day hundreds of children toss their left over food, corn-based utensils, and other lunch items like milk cartons. The mish-mash of waste is then taken to a compost site in Santa Maria where it transforms from garbage into high-grade compost, which is later used to grow more food.
It is a far cry from the days when anything and everything was thrown into one mammoth dumpster and taken to the landfill. And according to Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, turning Harding’s cafeteria into a zero-waste, green machine makes the school one of the most environmentally friendly in the country.
“We’re making history here is what we’re doing,” Blum told Harding students during a ribbon cutting ceremony. “Your school is going to be one of the top schools in this country for composting and recycling.”
The composting program is the most recent addition to the already environmentally minded campus, which since last August has operated an on-site cafeteria where everything from the pizza dough to chocolate chip cookies are made from scratch.
Santa Barbara School District Superintendent Dr. Brian Sarvis said aside from books and tests, the purpose of education is to teach children a number of values, including, “How we’re going to live in a sustainable future.”
Sarvis said he was shocked to learn from the city four years ago that the school district was not traveling down a sustainable path. He said the district’s 25 schools threw more recyclable products into the trash each day than any single entity in the city.
“I wasn’t very proud of that,” he said.
Recyclables aside, the school also tops the list of the city’s garbage producers, a stat City Councilwoman Helene Schneider said made it imperative for the city to join hands with the district and search for ways to stem local education’s environmental impact.
In order for the city to meet its 2010 goal of recycling 70 percent of its total waste — it currently diverts 65 percent of its waste — Schneider said the school needed to be on board.
Though the district was willing to cooperate, much of the success at Harding is due to the efforts of Principal Sally Kingston, who broke away from the district’s nutritional services program and has taken an enthusiastic jump into the city’s compost pilot program.
Kingston, who has been the principal at Harding for the past three years, said the first step was to turn the cafeteria into an on-site kitchen, where everything is homemade.
In order to do that, she had to nail down a number of grants and generate about $40,000 in donations for new refrigerators and other appliances.
The costs of the compost program are more difficult to determine.
Neither Kingston nor Sarvis said they could quantify just what it will cost the district. Kingston did say the plates, which are a byproduct of sugar cane (Sarvis took a bite of a plate to prove it), and the silverware (made from corn), are about three-times more expensive than regular plastic.
Eric Lohela, recycling coordinator for the city’s Environmental Services Division, said school officials don’t know how much the program is costing because it’s pretty much free at this point.
He said most of the costs are being covered by grants, and Allied Waste Service has donated the compost dumpsters, as well as the pickup costs.
The only cost at the moment, Lohela said, is a roughly $60 per ton compost fee charged by Harvest Blend Compost in Santa Maria, which is paid by the city. He said $60 is on par with what it costs to bury a ton of trash at the Tajiguas Landfill, but hopes as the program grows, that cost will shrink for $40.
Though Harding is the first school to join the city’s compost program, a number of businesses are already on board and the waiting list is stacked 35 deep.
Some of those businesses are Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, which contributes 450 pounds to the compost pile each day, and Santa Barbara City College, which serves between 2,000 to 3,000 meals per day. The Coffee Cat, which dumps 70 to 80 pounds of coffee grinds each day, is also on board.
Lohela said the Coffee Cat has reduced its daily trash load by 50 to 80 percent as a result of the compost program, which saves a significant amount of money.
For Lohela, who walked through the Harding cafeteria yesterday and picked items from the compost dumpsters that most people would never imagine could make good soil, composting is the way of the future and it’s an effective way to battle global warming.
“Food is something we’ve ignored for a long time,” he said. “It’s 30 percent of our trash depending on how you look at it.”
That 30 percent translates into about 20,000 tons per year, which is buried in a landfill and spews methane gas into the atmosphere.
With composting, “We can take what was a liability and turn it into something we want,” Lohela said as he gazed into a dump-trailer filled with several tons of compost.
When compost is used in farms and gardens, Lohela said it cuts down on water use by 10 to 30 percent, reduces the need for pesticides, cuts down on erosion and could increase yields.
Bob Engel, vice president of Harvest Blend Compost, said the compost is sold to outlets throughout the county and can be bought for $28 to $30 per yard.
Lohela said plans are in the works expand the program throughout the school district, a goal Sarvis said he’s willing to support.
“We want to expand this to all of the schools,” Sarvis said. “Everyone is pursuing recycling but composting is the next big step.”

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