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Century School students try hand at composting

Alan Vanderstad, facilities director at Park Rapids Area Schools, empties an organics recycling barrel from the Century School cafetorium into the new food composting container behind the school.1 / 2
Laura Wessberg, a Minnesota GreenCorps volunteer serving in the Hubbard County Solid Waste Department, supervises sixth grader Cyrus Wood as he empties his lunch leftovers into a food waste barrel for composting. (Photos by Robin Fish/Enterprise)2 / 2

Century Elementary and Middle School students started to learn a new way to clean their breakfast and lunch trays this week.

Instead of throwing all their waste in the same receptacle, beginning at lunchtime Monday, they have been following hints from local volunteers about how to separate organic material — such as food and paper napkins — from the other garbage, such as plastic packaging and milk cartons.

Laura Wessberg, a Minnesota GreenCorps member volunteering with the Hubbard County Solid Waste Department, joined graduates of a recent Master Recyclers and Composters class at the trash barrels during lunch Wednesday.

"We're basically helping them learn where things go," she said, noting that the barrels in each tray return line swapped places during the week.

Between meals, the compostable trash is emptied into a special receptacle outside the kitchen area. The long, black container uses several measures to control the smell of decaying food, ranging from rubber gaskets lining its hatches to a grating at the bottom, covered with wood chips. Attached to the container is a system of pipes and hoses pumping air in and pulling it out through the wood chips and into an external filtration device.

"That will hopefully keep the odors in," said Wessberg. "Hopefully, it shouldn't get too bad in the summer. We'll see what happens."

Periodically, the contents are removed to a composting facility in Crookston, said Wessberg.

"All the food gets piled up," she explained. "Micro-organisms eat it, and it basically turns it into dirt. Later, that compost will be used in road projects, on lawns, in gardens, lots of different things."

Benefits of the composting program, she said, include keeping wet food waste out of the trash that is sent to Fosston to be incinerated. Moisture makes it harder to burn, forcing the incinerator to use more fuel.

"If food ends up in a landfill," she added, "it'll basically mummify and produce methane, which is a pretty potent greenhouse gas. This way, it's being re-used."

In addition, Wessberg said, the project is an opportunity to change kids' perspective.

"This food is still a resource," she said. "That's why we're re-using it in compost rather than just wasting it. That's the main message that I want these kids to take away."

Asked what she likes about the project, volunteer Pat Godwin said, "There's good kid energy. They're learning so quickly, and they're asking good questions. 'What are you doing with this?' And then we tell them about composting."

Jody Ziemann, another volunteer, said it's about "planting seeds about composting with all the young people. It's taking good care of the earth. We live on a small planet."

"I think it's a great program for the school," said Foodservice Director John Clark. "It's been a good partnership so far."

School Facilities Director Alan Vanderstad said it was good to be "working with Hubbard County to try to improve the environment and try to recycle as much as we can."

The county will pick up the recycled food as needed, he said.