Richland County partners with Dutch Fork Elementary for pilot food-waste project

Students are turning uneaten food into compost, and learning to think critically about the food they throw away

It’s a lesson in ecology — and economy.

Lunch scraps are being turned into plant food at a local elementary school, thanks to a new recycling program and lots of environmentally conscious students.

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Students and staff at Dutch Fork Elementary in Irmo separate food and other lunch-time wastes into coded bins, with appropriate items saved and turned into compost for the school’s plants and gardens. (Photo provided)

Dutch Fork Elementary School in Irmo is participating in a pilot program to reduce the amount of food waste the school sends to the landfill, school and Lexington-Richland District 5 officials said in a news release.

Richland County Solid Waste & Recycling received a grant from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to set up the program, and representatives with Solid Waste & Recycling selected Dutch Fork Elementary to be the test group because of its well-known eco-friendly operations, officials said.

“Dutch Fork Elementary School is really committed to taking care of the environment,” said Richland County Recycling Coordinator Shirley Mims. “The teachers and students are great and they take recycling seriously.”

Here’s how it works: Each day during lunch, student helpers and cafeteria staff direct students about where trash on their lunch trays should go: the recycle bin, the food-waste bin or the landfill bin.

The contents of the recycle bin and landfill bin are eventually hauled off to their respective destinations, but the contents of the food-scrap bin are turned into nutrient-rich compost students and staff will use to feed the plants and flowers in the school’s many gardens.

“It really comes full circle,” said Amy Umberger, Resident Scientist of Dutch Fork Elementary School. “For students to understand that food waste can be turned into this healthy compost that will be used in our flower beds and greenhouse illustrates that trash isn’t always just trash.”

After each lunch period, the collected food waste is weighed using a special scale provided by Richland County Solid Waste & Recycling. The amounts are recorded on a large poster inside the cafeteria for students to see, as a way to encourage students to waste less food.

The food scraps are picked up at the school by SMART Recycling, an organics hauling company, and dropped off at ReSoil, a nearby composting facility, where it will take several months for the food to transform into compost.

But Umberger says it’s worth the wait.

“Students get excited at the idea that what was once their unwanted food is now this super healthy plant food,” she said.

With the new food waste project off to a seemingly successful start at the school, officials with Solid Waste & Recycling hope it can help bring the program to additional Richland County schools in the future.

“It would be great if we can help get other schools on board,” Mims said. “This project is a win-win for us, for the schools, and for the landfill.”

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