How City High students are leading the way with new composting program

City High Middle School is home to one of only two Green Fellows in the United States, and students there are harnessing her leadership to blaze a new trail when it comes to school lunch sustainability. Find out how their cafeteria conversation is expanding to include terms from composting to economicology.
It's lunch time at City High Middle School, and instead of sending their disposable lunch trays to the landfill, students are now turning them into a renewable process that generates soil. There has been a bit of a learning curve, and signs above the cafeteria waste bins show students what to compost, recycle and trash, but a new composting pilot at the school is projected to make a big environmental impact.

In mid-December, the school switched to compostable trays and milk cartons and did away with polystyrene à la carte trays. This means students are able to compost and/or recycle most items from their lunch. All the food waste is also compostable.
School officials and Environmental Club students behind the project have estimated they will keep more than 100,000 polystyrene trays and 150,000 side dish containers out of the landfill each year.

“Polystyrene is bad for our health and the environment,” says Jessica Vu, a senior E-Club member. “It’s important people really understand sustainability.”

“That’s too much waste,” adds Rebecca DeBoer, also a senior and E-Club member. “It was too much for the E-Club to stomach.”

In addition, the program is expected to divert an average of 100 pounds of food waste per day from the landfill. This amounts to about 18,000 pounds or nine tons of food each year, says Kristen Trovillion, Green Schools Fellow working with Grand Rapids Public Schools on sustainability and green initiatives. And that’s just one school. So if City’s program proves to be cost neutral, Trovillion is hopeful it can be expanded to other schools.

Trovillion works for U.S. Green Building Council – Center for Green Schools and came to Grand Rapids last fall to act as a sustainability officer for the district. As she was making rounds at GRPS schools to introduce her position, she learned that City High Middle School’s Environmental Club had tried without success to start a composting program.

Trovillion worked with students and school officials, including E-Club sponsor and Assistant Principal Ryan Huppert, as well as higher-level district administrators to crunch the numbers and seek out new vendors. Together, they put together a plan to switch the school’s lunch trays from polystyrene to compostable trays and remove unnecessary side dish and a la carte containers (which saved money), replace plastic milk bottles with compostable milk cartons, and change to biodegradable garbage bags.

City High Middle School E-club members.Last fall, Huppert and E-Club students visited Grand Valley State University to learn about the university’s sustainability and composting efforts. Key program partners include a local composting company Organicycle and The Wege Foundation. City receives a grant from The Wege Foundation as a Center for Economicology and used that funding for Organicycle’s composting services, Huppert says.

“We tried to do this a couple of years ago, but it was too expensive,” Huppert says. “Organicycle is a great service with regards to sustainability. It composts on an industrial scale all food waste. They come and get the compostables.”

Ideally, school officials hope there is enough cost savings that the program could continue with or without the grant. One big factor is the district used to have a source to recycle the polystyrene trays and now it doesn’t, says Amy Klinkoski, nutrition services coordinator. She helped find the compostable products and a new milk vendor with compostable cartons. The compostable trays have individual dividers, making it easier for students to toss the entire tray – food waste and all, Huppert says.

Still, with 800 students, it’s taken some education. They have to be reminded that some things, such as chip bags, the lids on orange juice containers and plastic silverware, are considered trash. Early on, E-Club students stood near the waste receptacles to remind students what is compostable and recyclable. They also made signs and reconfigured the holes above each bin in the cafeteria to cut down on confusion. The largest opening is for the trays; the smallest for the trash.

“It used to be all circles, so we retooled the holes,” DeBoer says. “Students are trying to move quickly, so now you can just look at the signs.”

They also made a video, which teachers showed in all classes to help educate fellow students and teach them how to sort their trash. The weight of the compost will be tracked through the year, so students will be able to see the impact of the change.

City High Middle School incorporates sustainability and the principles of economicology, a term coined by Peter Wege to mean achieving a balance between economics and ecology, into their curriculum to ensure students develop the skills to create a more sustainable future for all the world’s inhabitants. Many E-Club students are seniors and started at City in seventh grade when it first became a Center for Economicology. It’s been a great capstone project for them as the first graduating class as a Center for Economicology.

“Our job was to make it accessible to all students, how to make this benefit all of us,” DeBoer says. “We’re doing something that affects the students on a daily basis. It really makes them see we can be a force for change.”

It’s also increased interest in the E-Club, which meets weekly and also collects other recycling throughout the school. The club initially had about eight members and they were all seniors.

“Now we have about 20 people in all different grades, so it’s growing our influence in the school,” Vu says. “Hopefully, we can get other schools in the district to get involved.” 

“If we can get this into the elementary schools, students that young learning about sustainability will have a huge ripple effect,” adds DeBoer.

As a result of student surveys, another impact has been more vegan and vegetarian offerings on the menu, Huppert says. The program is still in its infancy, but Trovillion is optimistic it can be sustainable at City and expand to other GRPS schools. “With all of the adjustments to date, we are proud to say the program has been implemented at no additional cost to the district,” she says. “In fact, we’re projecting a savings of a couple hundred dollars per year with the potential for more savings as the program expands.”

It’s also a great example of what can happen when school districts have a person dedicated to sustainability issues and what can get accomplished when people work together. Trovillion helped facilitate meetings between different departments, including the students, nutrition services and the school’s cafeteria staff.

GRPS applied to the Center for Green Schools to receive a Fellow and raised the required support. Trovillion’s three-year fellowship is one of only two current fellowships in the nation, she says. Her role is to implement strategies to reduce resource use and waste such as building-level energy and water use, improve school occupant health, and teach students about global environmental issues. Another component is of the job is to help with place-based learning opportunities and student-led initiatives such as City’s composting pilot.

“We’re also really excited about how this program showcases the vital and meaningful impact of student engagement,” Trovillion says. “The students of City High Middle, particularly those in the Environmental Club, are key to the success of this pilot and their thoughtfulness in approach is a real testament to the success of City as a Center for Economicology.” 

Marla R. Miller is a professional writer, pelvic health educator, social activist and deep thinker who enjoys writing articles that enlighten, inspire and get people to think. As a former newspaper reporter, she also believes real community journalism still matters. To learn more about her work, visit, or email her with feedback or story ideas at [email protected].

This piece was made possible through a partnership with InspirED Michigan, a project of the Michigan Public Schools Partnership. MPSP is a coalition of more than 50 education-related organizations, school districts and individuals committed to promoting the good news about Michigan public schools. To subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, click here.

Photography by Adam Bird
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