Washington Elementary students did things a little differently this past school year due to a new cafeteria initiative. The school implemented a food waste collection program that will result in about 5 tons of food waste diverted from the landfill and recycled annually.

The food waste is picked up by its regular waste hauler, Cloquet Sanitary Service, taken to Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in Duluth and turned into nutrient-rich compost.

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"I think the end goal is to be more mindful of the resources we have and how we are impacting the environment around us, and it's a pretty easy way for us to, I think, make a big impact with the size of the building we have and the amount of waste we produce," Principal Robbi Mondati said.

Mondati and other Green Team members have been involved in the Green Schools Project, Carlton County's waste reduction and recycling grant program, for three years. The first couple of years, funds were spent on uniform recycling bins, reusable silverware for the cafeteria and a water bottle-filling station.

This year, they decided to collect food waste, which makes up a large portion of waste generated in schools.

Jason Godnai, a third-grade teacher and member of the school's Green Team, said the task was a little daunting.

"It's just a process that you have to do it. You have to dive into it and you just take the negatives and the positives and improve," Godnai said.

For example, dumpsters were rearranged to make space for the new food waste dumpster. The small cafeteria also presented its own set of unique challenges, so education of students, staff and teachers was essential.

"It certainly took a team effort, with our head custodian, as well as our kitchen staff (and) our cafeteria supervisor," Mondati said. "You need to have a team that is flexible and adaptable and not naive to believe that there won't be some challenges."

Funds from the Green Schools Project grant were used to purchase equipment, including a custom waste disposal station through Sheet Metal Solutions of Duluth. The station includes a bin for students to place their leftover food into a special compostable bag and another bin to place trash, like plastic wrappers and milk cartons, both of which are not recyclable in the area.

"I think they've done a nice job with their sorting and they've got the flow down," Mondati said. "Depending on the grade level, it's maybe a little bit more time consuming, so it's just us needing to be mindful about the timing of kids coming in and kids going out, but I think generally it's been really successful, worthwhile, worth doing."

They're not the first to implement organics collection. The Cloquet Middle School has been collecting food waste in its cafeteria for almost 10 years, and the program was integrated into the new facility, which students and staff moved into last fall.

If all of the schools in the Cloquet district collected food waste in their cafeterias, an estimated 20 tons would be diverted from the landfill annually.

"With the support of the county and just the assistance in getting it up and running, it really is doable," Mondati said. "If we can do it in a building of 550 kids ranging from 5 to 10 years old, I think it's a manageable task for any building to take on."