Where Does Your Lunch Waste Go?

Sarah McDonald ’22
This article was originally published in Shipley's student newspaper, The Beacon.

Each day, United States schools alone waste 530,000 tons of food per year, which costs as much as $9.7 million a day to manage according to the World Wildlife Fund. This breaks down to approximately 39 pounds of food waste thrown out per school annually. 

Waste sorting benefits the environment and saves money. Taking a few extra minutes at lunch to decide whether something goes in the compost, trash, or recycling bin can significantly reduce the amount of waste Shipley produces. 

Signs by the waste sorting stations in the Commons explain what goes where. Food, used paper dishes, food waste, wax papers, and napkins go in the compost. Plastic containers, unused paper dishes, single use plastic bottles, paper, cardboard, and emptied milk cartons go in the recycling bin. Plastic cutlery, wrappers, plastic wrap, wipes, and coffee cups go in the trash. Any questions can be directed to the students on lunch duty, Ms. Norquist, Mr. Gaines, or the environmental committee. 

But once we appropriately sort our waste, what’s the next step? 

Over half of trash in the U.S. ends up in landfills; most modern landfills layer trash in a complex drainage system to allow garbage to naturally decompose without too much environmental harm. Underground drains collect contaminated fluid to ensure no toxins are released into our air. 

Some trash may be sent to an incinerator to be burned. This process releases harmful chemicals into the environment, and older incinerators use massive amounts of electricity. Very few incinerators actually have filters that aim to capture pollutants, but even when they do, substances are later disposed of in landfills. Moreover, 25% of what goes through an incinerator ends up in a landfill anyway. This waste can reach underground water sources and contaminate the air, especially in lower income communities and communities of color where incinerators are often placed. 

Recyclables are picked up and sent to a specialized facility where they are filtered both by hand and by assembly line. Any trash is filtered out before everything is sorted by type; cardboard and paper get set aside before plastics of the same kind are compressed together into compact cubes, ready to be converted to something new. Glass is set aside to be pulverized into cullet while metal and aluminium are sent off to smelting facilities. 

In many cases, compost is sent to anaerobic digesters, which take organic waste and turn it into fertilizer. The lack of oxygen in the tanks turns the waste into digester solids, or pre-compost solids. Next, the solids are sent to an outside company to be heated, aerated, and turned into usable compost. 

Shipley, however, uses a method called Windrow composting. All compost items are put into large piles with adequate aeration and turned periodically while they decompose. Windrow compost is great for larger communities and collects waste from cafeterias, packing plants, and more. 

Facilities like this aim to waste nothing: the biogas produced in the process is used to mix and heat the digesters and all liquids are collected and purified to provide the digesters with water. Anaerobic digesters can commonly be found on farms but some also accept food waste from restaurants, grocery stores, households, and communities. 

Often, we mindlessly throw things away, accepting that our waste will be placed somewhere and we will never have to see it again. Most people don’t understand the processes behind filtering and decomposing trash and the benefits to composting and recycling. 

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 75% of America’s waste can be recycled, but only 30% actually is. We generate 21.5 million tons of food waste annually; composting this food would have the same effect of taking two million cars off the road and reduce the same amount of greenhouse gases. 

These statistics are shocking but provide us with hope that by properly sorting waste, we can meet our sustainability goals both as a country and a school. Here at Shipley, you can easily do your part to help reach a clean, green future.

Learn more about The Beacon and other Upper School student publications.


From the Beacon

The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.