Eighth-Graders Create Sustainable Composting System at Poly

What happens when organics like food scraps and gardening waste end up in the landfill? Although many of us may think these items are biodegradable, the reality is that when organics decompose within a landfill they actually produce methane gas, a powerful, heat-trapping gas that contributes to climate change.

During Spring 2020’s distance learning period, a group of Poly eighth-graders (class of ‘24) as part of the FLEx program including Bianca H., Elliot R., Evelyn Y., Jaden R., Janie D., Jesse B., Kamryn C., Kate L., Mimi R., Natalie V., and Pierre V. took a deep dive into learning about how Poly manages its organic waste and explored more sustainable options.

The students investigated the pros and cons of various waste disposal methods, reviewed current California laws regarding organic waste, and then researched economically viable solutions including on-site composting systems. They worked through project week, promotion week, and several weeks into summer vacation, ultimately presenting their findings and recommendations to a panel of Poly administrators. They proposed a pilot for a specific type of on-site composting system that could process all the types of organics that Poly generates, including food waste. Their proposal was approved and construction was completed in late July. 

“I hope to be able to take the knowledge I've gained from this project and apply it to other areas of my life,” said Evelyn Y. “I also hope to continue working on sustainability at Poly, perhaps even bring this composting program to the high school.”

The type of composting system they chose is called a Forced Aerated Static Pile (ASP), in which air is forced into the pile automatically, heating it up and killing pathogens and weed seeds. Additionally, this system is less labor intensive than other types of composting because the pile doesn’t need to be physically turned. As part of their research, the group interviewed Peter Moon, President of O2 Compost, a company in Snohomish, WA specializing in ASP system installation and consulting. Peter was so impressed with the depth and breadth of the students’ research that he donated construction plans, aeration equipment, and unlimited support for the project. 

In early August, the first batch of gardening green waste was loaded into the bin and is now on its way to becoming compost.

The students’ goal is for Poly to “close the loop” on the organic waste we generate and to process it all on-site, producing nutrient-rich compost that could then be used to fertilize the trees and plants around campus. This system would benefit Poly financially by reducing waste hauling fees, and perhaps most importantly, it would also significantly reduce Poly’s carbon footprint by eliminating more than seven metric tons of greenhouse gases per year from the atmosphere.

“I hope that one day Poly becomes a completely sustainable campus, and I feel this is one of the first steps,” said Jesse B.

Eighth Grader Teacher and Dean Kate Gray and School Event Coordinator Laura Fleming led the project, along with the construction team including Manager of Safety and Sustainability Dave Yamaoka, Middle School Director Pat Gray, and Louis Fleming Jr. ‘77. Peter Matthiessen ‘77 consulted on aeration construction.

According to Natalie V. who worked on the project, she hopes that other schools are inspired by the composting at Poly to take action and implement similar ideas.