By Maggie Dangerfield, Sustainability Coordinator, Charleston County School District


The Charleston County School District (CCSD) recycles more than just bottles and cans. It recycles its food waste too. Since 2012, CCSD has been diverting its uneaten food waste in school cafeterias from the landfill to the Charleston County Bees Ferry Commercial Compost Facility. When combined with the County’s residential yard waste, uneaten food waste from school cafeterias, along with pre- and post-consumer waste from local restaurants and grocery stores, is made into a nutrient-rich compost product that is sold in the community and donated back to school gardens to complete the table to table loop. The CCSD Food Waste Composting Program has been instrumental in fostering a closed loop waste cycle and has successfully engaged students and staff in environmental stewardship and resource conservation, both in the schools and in the broader community.


The Path to Compost

CCSD initiated a commercial food waste composting program in its school cafeterias after spending several years working with Charleston County Environmental Management to assess and reduce its municipal solid waste (MSW) user fee and increase environmental awareness and recycling participation in its schools through the District’s Sustainable Schools Initiative. Over a two-year period, the District’s Sustainability Coordinator and the County’s Greening Schools Representative met with key players at each school such as the administrators, head custodial support staff (day porters), green teacher liaison, and student green teams to discuss current waste management practices and interests in sustainability-related projects, platforms, or goals. As these dialogues continued and relationships grew, the District and the County were able to work with each school to right-size its trash dumpster through adjustments to its weekly service schedule and increase access to and participation in recycling through the provision of educational resources and additional receptacles for each facility. This resulted in significant savings in the District’s MSW user fee paid to the landfill and created a solid baseline from which the District could make additional reductions attributable to increased recycling participation and other innovative waste management solutions going forward.


Students at Buist Academy, courtesy of CCSD Office of Strategy and Communications

Students at Buist Academy, courtesy of CCSD Office of Strategy and Communications

The Perfect Storm

Following the introduction of single-stream recycling in the County and CCSD’s success in optimizing its MSW user fee, the District sought to further diversify its waste stream. Initiated in the 2012-2013 school year, the CCSD Food Waste Composting Program was created from a unique opportunity to partner with Charleston County Environmental Management and a private food waste hauler, Food Waste Disposal, to utilize one of the state’s first licensed landfills to accept organic waste located in Charleston County. This venture was advantageous in that it allowed the District to not only further diversify its waste stream in an environmentally economic way, but also incorporate science and environmental education into a program that students and staff would be directly participating in each day.  Because food waste tipping fees are less expensive than MSW tipping fees, it also provided the District with another means to potentially generate savings or at least cost-shift within waste management to more sustainable practices.


Learning to Sort It Out

Eleven schools representative of the diverse student population in Charleston County were selected to pilot the program, which involves student-driven sorting of food waste from school cafeterias into three waste stream bins (landfill, recycle, and compost) at the end of the lunch period each day. Food waste diverted to the compost bin during this sorting process is picked up by a food waste hauler at each school and taken to the Bees Ferry Compost Facility every other day. This often allows for reductions to be made to the MSW dumpster service, potentially creating valuable savings or the ability to cost-shift between waste streams. As a result, the pilot program was not only successful in reducing dumpster service and diverting waste to a less expensive recyclable waste stream, but was also successful in increasing student education about the waste lifecycle and wastefulness in general. “Composting in schools teaches children that there really is no ‘away’ when it comes to throwing away their lunch waste.  This program helped bring it all full circle from their food waste and back again when we get compost to spread in our school garden. It also makes the students more conscientious about recycling and how much they can actually divert from a landfill, simply by where they discard their items,” says Ashley Steadly, fourth grade teacher at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary, about the pilot program at her school.


Following the pilot program’s success, a digital education toolkit was developed to help students and staff learn more about the science behind the composting process and how to participate in diversion as the program expanded to more schools. This toolkit includes items such as an interactive Smartboard game to teach students how to sort out their food waste into the three waste streams; an educational and instructional PowerPoint on the composting process; a parent flyer to engage family members at home; a materials and resource guide for set-up and program maintenance; and a pre and post assessment to tie the practices in the cafeteria to the lessons learned in the classroom. From 2013-2015, the toolkit and the program were rolled out to an additional 37 schools, bringing the total number of schools participating to 48 across the District. Since the program’s inception in 2012, the District has successfully diverted over 2.4 million pounds of food waste from the landfill as a part of the CCSD Food Waste Composting Program.


Students at Buist Academy, courtesy of CCSD Office of Strategy and Communications

Students at Buist Academy, courtesy of CCSD Office of Strategy and Communications

Fostering Success

The introduction of a new process and program takes time, especially in a school setting with many moving parts and hundreds of individuals to serve and educate. Building successful relationships is a key component to seamlessly integrating new initiatives into the daily fold. It is because of the positive relationships established during the two years prior to the food waste program’s inception that the District was able to gain buy-in from key stakeholders at the school level to make the implementation of the food waste composting program a success. Environmental stewardship and engagement by student groups, such as student green teams, has also been instrumental in facilitating peer-to-peer teaching about the program and encouragement of good waste management practices among students.

Some challenges the District experienced associated with the food waste program included the time needed to sort materials and keeping the compost bin free of non-compostable items. Strategies developed to help mitigate these issues have included pre-sorting of materials into the waste stream groups at the lunch table on trays or student lunch boxes, class collection of landfill items by buckets at the lunch table prior to approaching the waste station, and increased monitoring of bins by student green leaders, student council members, teachers, or custodial staff members during the lunch period to help reduce contamination issues. While these strategies are helpful, they do not always solve the problem, so continued education and training about the composting program is important to do throughout the year.


Future Plans

CCSD aspires to provide the opportunity for experiential learning about food waste composting to all of its schools in its mission toward whole system sustainability and less wastefulness. In addition to expanding the program to more schools in the years to come, the District hopes to pilot its first high school installment of the program in Spring 2016. The District also desires to continue growth of its farm to school programs and create more cross-collaborative public-private partnerships within the community for support of it sustainability programs. One thing is for certain: CCSD is committed to fostering environmental education and sustainability across the District in a manner that is cost-effective and sustainable for its 49,000+ students and 6,500 employees across 86 schools and 1000 square miles of South Carolina’s coast; and this food waste composting program is just the beginning.


About Maggie Dangerfield

Maggie Dangerfield is the Sustainability Coordinator for the Charleston County School District (CCSD). Maggie is a graduate of Clemson University with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Economics, and of the College of Charleston with dual Master degrees in Environmental Studies and Public Administration and a Certificate in Urban Planning. Prior to joining CCSD, Maggie worked as an environmental scientist and a coastal research specialist. While at CCSD, Maggie has focused on expanding the waste management program, school-based green initiatives, and operational environmental protocols. Most recently, Maggie has developed a school-based commercial composting program in 48 schools with plans to continue expansion across the District. Maggie is also a LEED AP BD+C accredited professional.


About the CCSD Sustainable Schools Initiative

Charleston County School District (CCSD) is committed to fostering environmental education and sustainability across the District in a manner that is cost-effective and sustainable for its 49,000+ students and 6,500 employees across 86 schools and 1000 square miles of South Carolina’s coast.  With this commitment in mind, the CCSD Sustainable Schools Initiative was launched in 2010 by former Superintendent, Dr. Nancy J. McGinley, following her attendance with former City of Charleston Mayor, Joseph P. Riley, at the 2010 Greening of America’s Schools Summit hosted by the US Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools, the Redford Center, and ICLEI. The Initiative was launched with three pillars in mind: healthy, sustainable schools for current and future generations; sustainable construction to meet the needs of growing minds in a growing world; and sustainable curriculum to enable our students to become stewards of their environment and community. Within the three core pillars of the Sustainable Schools Initiative are several focus areas which include environmental awareness, comprehensive waste management, student green team programs, energy and resource conservation practices, school gardens, farm to school practices, and green school awards and recognitions.

Through the support and guidance of District leadership, public and private community partnerships, and sustainability champions at the school-level, the District has made significant strides in sustainability. In particular, over the past five years, the District has:

  • Achieved 100% in recycling participation and accessibility to all District schools and facilities;
  • Established a vast network of over 100 green liaisons to represent each school and their various sustainability programs, projects, and platforms;
  • Formed student green teams at over 45 schools to steward sustainability initiatives and practices;
  • Created 60 or more school gardens and incorporated farm to school programs and partnerships; and
  • Developed the Green School Awards to recognize outstanding sustainability practices by a green liaison, day porter, student green team, and school each year.