NYC Public Schools brings composting to every cafeteria

The two-year initiative was spearheaded by the city as a way to reduce waste in the city’s public schools.
NYC school bus
NYC Public Schools generates more than 80 million pounds of trash per year, according to the city> | Photo: Shutterstock

NYC Public Schools has rolled out composting at all of its cafeterias.

The initiative began two years ago by New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New York City Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor David C. Banks and New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner Jessica Tisch.

School cafeterias are now outfitted with five different containers: a bin to dump liquids; a bin for food waste, compostable trays and silverware, and food-soiled paper; a bin for milk cartons, rigid plastic and metal; and a bin for the remaining trash that is neither recyclable nor compostable.

Once the containers are full, custodial staff take the waste and put it in sealed, rat-proof bins that are placed outside on the curb to be picked up every evening during the week.

Students and faculty at each school received training on how to properly sort their waste into the correct container and the importance of doing so. Many schools have also established their own student-led “Green Teams” that are responsible for reminding and encouraging their peers to sort their waste. In addition, each school elects a staff member who is responsible for promoting green initiatives at their school.

“Composting is a win-win-win — it keeps waste out of landfills, greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, and rats out of our communities,” said Mayor Adams in a statement. “We’re proud to bring our nation-leading composting program to all of our city’s public schools ahead of schedule, and we’re excited for the cleaner, greener buildings and sidewalks that this initiative will create. Today’s announcement is a major step towards our rollout of free, easy weekly curbside composting to every New Yorker, on every block, in every borough by the end of this year.” 

Roughly over the past ten years, less than half of the district’s schools composted. As the nation’s largest school district, NYC Public Schools generates more than 80 million pounds of trash per year, over 47% of which is food waste and food-soiled paper, according to the city.

School cafeterias have historically been large contributors of waste. A 2019 study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)estimated that schools produce 530,000 tons of food waste annually which could them cost as much as $1.7 billion each school year.

School districts across the country have implemented a number of tactics to minimize their waste over the years, including setting up share tables, which allow students to offer uneaten food to their peers who may be hungry, and partnering with farmers who use the waste as animal feed.

This is the latest initiative for NYC Public Schools’ nutrition department, which has launched a number of new programs in the past couple of years under Mayor Adams.

In 2022, it launched a Chefs Council chaired by celebrity chef Rachael Ray to develop plant-based dishes for students and provide hands-on training for school nutrition staff.

Last year, it launched a multi-step plan to improve nutrition education among students. The plan includes three different goals: Help students learn about healthy eating and wellness; increase the accessibility of healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate meals in schools; and motivate parents, foodservice workers, educators and other members of school communities to be wellness ambassadors.



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