Composting Catastrophe

     On Wednesday April 14, 2022, I was forwarded an email from Sustainability club advisor, Jon Bromley. It was a chain of back and forth communication between Bromley and a representative from Mr. Fox. I opened this email, almost expecting it to be a shout out from Mr. Fox for all the hard work and effort Oyster River had put into our new composting system, praising the dramatic decrease of contamination in our compost. As the chain of emails loaded, my mouth dropped as I saw five attached pictures at the bottom of the email. The pictures were of Oyster River compost bags, severely contaminated with plastics, chip bags, paper, and piles of non-compostable items. The email from Mr. Fox blatantly stated, “we wanted to reach out as we have noticed significant contamination at Oyster River Middle and High School lately, can you help us out?” Reading this chain of emails and staring at these pictures of completely contaminated compost bags, I felt embarrassed to be an Oyster River student and disappointed in my peers. Only a few years ago Oyster River was in jeopardy of being removed as a client of Mr. Fox due to high contamination levels, and we can not let this happen again. 

     Oyster River uses Mr. Fox, a local industrial composting plant that picks up our organic waste every week so we can compost. Mr. Fox is based in York, Maine and picks up compost from businesses and houses all over the Seacoast. Mr. Fox makes composting easy and attainable for Seacoast families and businesses. They provide bags, bins, instructional signage and even have representatives that will come to your business and train you on how to compost.  Mr. Fox even delivers soil that they produce from compost to their customers, so we can continue to grow vegetables and fertilize our gardens. Composting, if done correctly, is the only kind of waste disposal that has zero effect on climate change. An article by the United States Environmental Protection Agency organic waste, when disposed of in landfills creates excess methane and carbon dioxide that can be easily avoided by composting, it also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers in our gardens and compost provides carbon sequestration (the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. (USGS))

    The interest and need for a new composting system and behavioral change was discovered when the Sustainability Club and Environmental Science classes performed an organic waste audit in late 2019 to early 2020. We spent our lunches and free periods sorting through trash, recycling, and composting bins, weighing them and carefully recording our data. We discovered that Oyster River students are creating over 7,000 pounds of organic waste and throwing it in the wrong bins. Over 7,000 pounds: the weight of a Hippopotamus, the weight of about seven average sized cows or seven grand pianos. 

When Nori Sandin (’23) an active member of Sustainability Club received the email from Bromley, she said “I was in horror over the fact that this doesn’t feel so much like an educational issue anymore. It feels like an issue of ignorance coming from the student body.” Sandin continued, “I think that a lot of students don’t understand the gravity of the situation, and the fact that this [climate change] is a time-sensitive situation.”

   Just over 4,000 of these pounds are coming directly from classrooms, leaving the other 3,000 pounds to be from the cafeteria. So, the Sustainability Club went to work developing a project called “The Compost System Design.” The Sustainability Club carefully mapped out each section of the school into ‘zones’ organizing classrooms by departments and location. We tried putting a compost bin in each of these ‘zones,’ each carefully labeled in big bold letters ‘COMPOST ONLY.’ But not so surprisingly, the bins would be filled with maybe a single banana peel, but covered with coffee cups, snack bags, and plastic water bottles by the time they were collected. Oyster River students have time and time again proven to the Sustainability Club, to the staff, and to administrators that we are incapable of caring enough about how we dispose of our waste.

     Grace Webb (’23) and Laura Slama (’22), two members of Sustainability Club have spent the last two years leading the club in composting efforts. Webb and Slama have lead workshops with community members and given presentations to Oyster River staff about the importance of composting. Webb composting directs food waste out of a landfill or an incinerator and into nutrients that can be directed back towards the soil. It’s a full circle path that food waste goes on.” Webb continued to explain the importance of composting, saying that the process eliminates the production of excess methane or carbon dioxide that you get from landfills and incinerators. Webb and Slama have spent hours making presentations and workshops for our town, and our teachers at Oyster River, and they are hoping that in the coming years, they will have the chance to present to fellow students to explain the necessity and importance of composting in the school. 

       Oyster River is overflowing with straight-A students, scholar athletes and conscious people, but there seems to be a lack of understanding and disconnection when it comes to making sustainable choices.  Sustainability club has narrowed the root of this issue down to; lack of knowledge, lack of understanding the importance, being overwhelmed or having climate anxiety and the lack of convenience. Oyster River students seem to be ignorant of the positive effects of composting, and have careless behavior when it comes to disposing of their waste. In middle school, a teacher would stand next to the trash receptacle, helping students properly sort and dispose of what was left on their lunch trays, which made sense because middle schoolers are between the ages of eleven and thirteen. It works fairly effectively. Sometimes the idea of having lunch monitors to help with waste disposal comes up, and it always makes me sigh. In all honesty, high schoolers should be able to tell the difference between the words ‘COMPOST’ ‘LANDFILL’ and ‘RECYCLING’ at this point in their education. The labeled signs, with examples and lists of what items belong in what bin are still not easy enough to understand for the majority of the  Oyster River student body. At one point, our cafeteria invested in using metal utensils instead of plastics, in an effort to be more sustainable, but lunch monitors and janitorial staff soon found that the metal silverware was being thrown into the trash bins and getting sent to be incinerated. 

     I have been a member of the Oyster River Sustainability Club for all four years of my highschool career. Each year, we have spent countless hours trying to solve the seemingly impossible task of teaching students and staff about sustainability. I have worked with amazing, passionate students and teachers who are always willing to step up and work hard to change the behavior of Oyster River students. Through COVID-19 and remote learning, the Sustainability Club met consistently and planned an entirely new design for our composting system so that teachers and their classrooms could have an efficient and effective way to dispose of organic waste.  

     Sustainability Club meets at 7:15am on Tuesday mornings and we all trudge in exhausted and frustrated. Every week we are there, ready to pick apart this composting catastrophe and figure out plans, goals, and sustainable solutions for my peers and teachers, so we can make sustainability easy, convenient, and create a progressive school environment that acknowledges the climate crisis and is doing our part to save our planet, our community, and create a new normal for those who come after us. Ultimately, it’s up to students at Oyster River High School to do their part or we will never be able to take steps forward to make our community more sustainable. It depends on more than just the actions of students who choose to be involved in clubs that advocate for sustainability. Movement and progress rely on students standing up, moving past the inconvenience and extra effort, and the ability to look forward for the ultimate payoff of carrying out these small actions. 

    We are being faced with an issue of chronic carelessness. We have signs, labels on bins, even teachers helping sort trash. But for some reason students fail to make the connection that plastic goes to the landfill or recycling, and organic waste goes to the compost. 
     So are Oyster River students just lazy and not paying attention when they are disposing of waste? Or do they simply not know the difference between compost and landfill? Sustainability Club has made it our responsibility to educate our peers on why making green choices is important. But time and time again, they have shown us that they won’t listen. The composting catastrophe at Oyster River is simply a cultural and behavioral issue that needs addressing from more than just a sustainability club. Our administration and school board need to step in and create policy that makes basic environmental science a part of our curriculum, and put more effort into creating concrete learning experiences for our student body that will help them be good Earth citizens. But for now, the best thing we can all do is care a little more, think before we act, and remember that all the small actions add to the foreboding climate crisis. We need to take action.