Conn. School Gets A+ for Reducing Amount of Food Waste Going to Landfills: 'It's Helping to Save the Planet'

Beecher Road Elementary School students are reducing the amount of trash that heads to landfills and emits a potent greenhouse gas, saving money — and the planet — by sorting their lunchtime garbage

Beecher Road Elementary School
Beecher Road Elementary School students sorting their lunchtime garbage. Photo: Lana Marcucio

Reducing food waste is easy — just ask the students at Beecher Road Elementary School in Woodbridge, Connecticut, who have become pint-sized pros at sorting their lunchtime trash.

Since the fall of 2019, students have been taking part in a successful food-waste diversion program that's saving money and helping others.

The program is also reducing the amount of trash that heads to landfills, where festering waste decomposes and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas that heats the planet, making the already dire climate crisis even worse.

Reducing methane emissions is the quickest way to slow climate change, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) announced in a global assessment in 2021, asking for "urgent" action.

Beecher Road School's program diverts more than 1,300 lbs. of food waste each month, saving an estimated 772 lbs. in CO2 emissions and producing 180 kilowatt-hours of energy, according to statistics from Blue Earth Compost in Connecticut.

"It's a good thing because you're helping the environment and saving the planet," sixth-grader Kirian, 11, tells PEOPLE for the Earth Day special in this week's issue.

Starting such food-waste reduction programs in cafeterias — in schools as well as in small companies and large corporations — costs little to nothing and is easy to implement.

"It's easy for the kids to do and easy to set up," says Beej Ahern, one of the two environmentally minded teachers who helped start the program. "So it's win-win."

When students are done eating lunch, they head to a designated section of the cafeteria — a row of desks, rolling metal carts, garbage cans, buckets and containers — where they sort their trash.

Leftover liquids, such as juice or milk, are emptied into a bucket on the floor. The paper milk cartons, juice containers and plastic water bottles are placed into another container to recycle.

Scraps of raw food waste — such as lettuce, potatoes, apples and bread crusts — go into a trash bin to be composted.

Beecher Road Elementary School
Beecher Road Elementary School students sorting their lunchtime garbage. Lana Marcucio

The finished product — dark brown, crumbly matter that looks like soil — is used to fertilize the school's garden.

Blue Earth takes the food scraps to Quantum Biopower, which turns those heaping piles of waste into energy.

Prepackaged, unopened snacks such as bags of carrots and boxes of raisins as well as produce such as apples and bananas are "rescued" and placed into a big basket with a handwritten "Donations" sign taped to it to send to the town's senior center.

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The benefits are numerous.

"The children are learning to take care of the earth," says teacher Kris Hart Rooney, who started the food waste reduction program with Ahern.

In 2018, parent Hillary Drumm came up with the idea to start the program after seeing a composting workshop at her children's preschool and a successful food-waste reduction program in the cafeteria where she works.

"Food waste is one of the easiest things to do to reduce greenhouse gases," she says. "It's the biggest, easiest hit you can do. I just thought it was a really easy thing for the school to do."

She reached out to the town, the district and the school. And in the spring of 2018, she ran a pilot program with a few other parents, asking kids to separate food into different bins for a few days.

"We weighed everything and found that about half the trash that was thrown out in the cafeteria during lunch was food waste in pounds," she says.

The school formed a sustainability committee made up of anyone who had a stake in the program, from the superintendent to the facilities manager — and Hart Rooney and Ahern, who make up the school's Green Team and teach the school's Multi-Age Group program for students in grades one through four.

For years, the two teachers have incorporated earth-friendly practices into their teaching.

"Nature and the environment have been important to the school as far back as I can remember," says Ahern.

In fact, Ahern and Hart Rooney's students have composted their snacks for years.

"We have a rain barrel the kids put together that helps feed the little pond we have," says Hart Rooney. "We have a green roof of the shed the kids built. So when this opportunity came along, we were like, 'Great. Let's get the whole school involved.'"

"I think we have to practice what we're teaching kids in school," she adds. "So if we're teaching them that we have to take care of the earth, we have to actually practice taking care of the earth in the school. It was very important to put things in place that would model what sustainable living is for the children."

The benefits don't end there. Trash-hauling costs in the area are based on weight or volume, and "since a lot less weight is going into our trash, we're saving money," Hart Rooney says.

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"The custodians really love it," she says. "I remember the first week we did it, they were so excited because the trash was so much easier to handle because it wasn't full of liquids."

Setting up the "assembly line" of desks, rolling carts and trash bins was easy, too, says facilities manager Vito Esparo.

"The cost was very small because we repurposed student desks, we had garbage barrels anyway and the students made signs," he says. "Once we got going, it became second nature."

The kids also love the planet-friendly ritual, says Ahern: "They believe they're making a difference, and to them it's actually kind of fun. They're like, 'I get to pour my milk out,' and it's like a little game."

In the process, everyone from the teachers to the students pay it forward.

"You learn how to do it and teach the next person," says Ahern. "It's good for everyone and everything, so it's not something you have to convince anyone of."

She adds, "You just have to show them so they can be thoughtful, too."

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