FREDERICK, Md. (AP) – Kathy Osborne raised her hands into the air, and the near-deafening din of a hundred fourth graders finishing lunch fell away.

“Tables 2, 3 and 4,” said Osborne, who has been a custodian with Frederick County Public Schools for 22 years. “Let’s go.”

Obediently, the Green Valley Elementary School students rose from their tables and filed into orderly lines. They sorted their debris into categories, dutifully separating unfinished sandwiches from their baggies and pouring milk dregs into a communal bucket.

The students produced 219 pounds of waste during lunch that day. But in the end, only 29 pounds were headed to a landfill.

Green Valley is one of a handful of schools across FCPS that have implemented waste-sorting programs, teaching students about separating garbage, recycling and composting, and setting aside unopened snacks for local food banks. The process can divert up to 85% of lunchtime waste that would otherwise sit in landfills, said Joe Richardson, a former member of the Frederick County Sustainability Commission and a main force behind the effort.

“I think it’s pretty remarkable what these kids are doing,” Richardson said. “You’ve got young kids who are leading the way.”

Guided by Richardson, a cohort of FCPS students are pushing for a law that would make it easier for schools across to start their own waste-sorting programs. Last month, about two dozen of them went to Annapolis to advocate for the legislation in person.

Senate Bill 124 would require the governor to allocate $ 500,000 each year toward school school composting and waste diversion. County school boards or individual schools would apply for a piece of that. The bill passed the Senate unanimously earlier this month and is currently moving through the House.

Richardson estimated it would cost about $ 2,000 to get a waste-sorting program up and running at each school. That would cover training, coordinating with a pickup service, and purchasing scales, bins and bags.

But over time, he said, the programs would save the schools money in other areas. Staff would need fewer trash bags and wouldn’t need to empty their dumpsters as often.

Waste-sorting started gathering momentum across FCPS before the pandemic hit, Richardson said, but school closures threw a wrench in his plans to expand the effort. Right now, programs are active in just four county schools, he said.

At each of those schools, students and lunchroom staff know the system: There’s a bucket for liquids – which later get poured down the drain – and bins for recycling, composting and garbage. At Green Valley and Middletown elementary schools, there’s also a cooler for food that can be donated, like untouched fruit or unopened yogurt.

On some days, staff at Green Valley recover 70 or 80 pieces of salvageable fruit and another 70 or 80 unopened drinks for the Greater Urbana Area Food Bank. Since the donations began in December, Green Valley and Middletown students together have donated more than 7,600 pieces of food.

When the final group of students has finished eating, staff and students work together to weigh the waste in each category. That’s how Richardson keeps track of the program’s impact – and he hopes to use it to push FCPS toward expanding.

“The data is jaw dropping,” Richardson said. “The data is really demonstrating why this is so essential.”

After the weighing, all the waste bins are rolled outside. Key City Compost, a local collection company, picks up the organic matter each week.

Osborne, Green Valley’s lead custodian, said the system was a no-brainer.

“It’s not a hard concept to me,” Osborne said. “It doesn’t take any more time – maybe five minutes at the most.”

If FCPS funded an expansion of the program, Richardson said, he’d advocate for the district to focus primarily on elementary schools. For one thing, he said, it’s easier to create habits in younger children than it is to change habits in older children.

Plus, elementary school students are notorious for leaving their food unfinished, Richardson added – a problem that’s a lot less pervasive in middle and high schools.

Green Valley and Middletown, the only two elementary schools with an active waste sorting-program, have each diverted more than 80% of their total lunch waste since the school year began. That translates to roughly 25,000 pounds.

The youngest students still need help each day with their sorting, Osborne said, but they’re catching on as the school year progresses. For older students, like fourth grader Nathan Lane, the process is a cinch at this point.

“When I was in kindergarten, we only had trash, so we put everything that was left over in the trash,” he said.

But since first grade, he’s been practicing sorting. He gestured proudly toward the cooler full of food bank donations. “It really isn’t difficult.”

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