Boulder Valley School District

Students usher in the successful return of composting to BVSD schools

Middle school students examine trash
Susan Cousins


After nearly a full school year on hold, composting has slowly returned to school cafeterias this school year, to the excitement of many Boulder Valley School District students and staff. 

“Sometimes we make the announcement in the lunchroom and students are cheering,” reports Eco-Cycle’s Kathy Nguyen, describing the reaction she gets when she lets a school know they are starting or restarting composting. 

“I was really happy when we brought composting to Eldorado because the environment is such a critical part of our entire earth, and it's very important that we take care of it,” Eldorado PK8 fifth grader Skyla Herbert commented about the effort. Herbert is a member of Eldorado’s Eco Club which has been working all year to support the composting program.

Shortly before the start of the 2022-23 school year, BVSD learned that local compost hauler, A-1 Organics, was making compost rules much more strict—accepting only food waste. This meant that any loads contaminated with other materials, even compostable serviceware or paper products, would be rejected and fined. As a result, BVSD and our zero waste partner Eco-Cycle had to pull back drastically on composting in schools, eliminating all but kitchen collection. 

Understandably, students and staff were disappointed at the change, Nguyen, Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools Program Manager acknowledged. The Green Star Schools program works with schools to include composting as part of their zero waste efforts. Schools voluntarily sign-up for the program and participate in education programs to learn how to do composting right.  

According to Nguyen, buy-in from the whole school is important for success. Each Green Star School has an adult Zero Waste Advocate to champion the effort and student volunteers are essential for helping schools get started (or restarted) and be successful in their efforts. 

“We would take turns on different shifts helping the younger students, and we would tell them what to compost and what to throw away,” Rishi Prabhu, another Eldorado Eco Club member explained. 

Eldorado’s Eco Club is one of many student groups around the district doing this work. BVSD has 42 schools in the Green Star program and students work to support the effort at each of them. 

“At the start of the year, we had to guide people a good amount to make sure they were putting stuff in the right bins. But throughout the year, progress has been made. And we sometimes have people with a claw and they just pick out garbage that might be in the compost or just stuff that doesn't belong there,” Eldorado student Tucker Doman added. 

The Eldorado students also helped with making signs that explained what waste goes into which bins. Making sure the waste is sorted correctly is critical to successful composting and the reason changes were made in 2022. At that time, compost waste streams across the entire Front Range were contaminated with non-compostable waste such as plastic, glass, and metal. These materials do not break down but are returned to the soil with finished compost and can potentially end up in our food when the compost is used on agricultural lands. Shards of broken glass and metal can also be dangerous to farmers and gardeners who use finished compost.

As part of the Sustainability Action Plan, BVSD has an ambitious goal to divert 50% of waste from landfills by reusing, recycling, and composting. With the return of composting to cafeterias this year BVSD is regaining some lost ground—104,671 lbs. of food waste has been collected through March of this school year, far surpassing what was collected all of last year. Only a very small amount has been rejected because of contamination. 

In addition to the students’ education efforts, Nguyen attributes some of the success to the fact that composting is easier now that only food goes into the compost bin. Before the switch to food-only composting, there was confusion in schools and the community about what paper or plastic products were compostable. 

“BVSD Food Services makes it so easy to divert waste because with schools that are using trays, the waste is mostly just food,” Nguyen explained. “It’s really easy to say, ok, what on your plate is not food, that can’t go here.”

Using reusable serviceware and utensils also reduces the waste created by paper food “boats” and plastic utensils. 

Nguyen also credits custodians for the successful return of composting. They are the “gatekeepers” and decide whether or not a load is contaminated and should be rejected from the compost stream. 

As part of our waste management strategy, composting helps BVSD use resources responsibly and send less waste to landfills. It also contributes to our overall efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Eco-Cycle, when organic materials break down in landfills, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide. Composting also creates a natural soil amendment that replenishes nutrients in the soil and our food, helps soil retain moisture and store carbon dioxide. 

“I think that when composting is brought to any school, it brings community because people can connect over something that they all love and for us it is the Earth,” Herbert shared.


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