Do you believe in magic?!
In this fun project toolkit, students will be doing a little bit of magic! Students will be turning something no one wants – food scraps and uneaten eats – into something worth its weight in gold: incredible, nutrient-rich soil that’s perfect for growing healthy, tasty and wonderful food. We’ll provide you with everything you need to set up a successful composting program at your school.
This toolkit address the following Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) within the Performance Expectations of NGSS for Grades: K-2 and 3-5
- Asking Questions and Defining a Problem
- Planning and Carrying out Investigations
- Analyzing and Interpreting Data
- Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
- Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
- Obtaining Evaluating, and Communicating Information
What is Composting?
Composting is nature’s way of recycling. Similar to nature when deceased plants and animals decompose into the soil, we too can turn decomposing food waste into a nutrient rich product called humus that can regenerate the Earth’s soil.
What You Will Accomplish
Composting is good for your school and the planet! By composting your school’s food waste, you will:
- Reduce the waste going into a landfill
- Cut down on harmful greenhouse gas emissions
- Turn that food waste into humus or compost
- Regenerate the soil on your campus and in your community
- Be able to grow food in your rich soil
Teacher Project Plan Step-by-Step
Step 1: Determine Participants
Use our Composting at School Sign Up Sheet.
- 1-10 students – plan to collect and compost food waste once or twice a week
- Team – assign 1-2 people to collect food waste and manage compost daily
- School – assign a classroom or grade level to manage compost each week
Step 2: Set Learning Objectives
- Students will analyze their classroom/school for an ideal location to compost
- School garden
- Outside the school cafeteria
- Students will organize the necessary materials to operate a composting station
- Students will manage composting receptacles to ensure the process is happening smoothly
- Students will exercise effective communication and accountability.
Evaluation and Assessment
- Students will track and evaluate the information they have collected
- Types of food
- How much compost is made
Step 3: Educate Students on the Benefits of Composting
The resources provided below can be shown as a slideshow or printed out as individual worksheets for students to learn.
Education Materials: Why Should You Compost?
Billions of Pounds of the Food We Produce is Wasted
Did you know more than 60 billion pounds of mineral-rich food go to landfills each year in the U.S. alone  while US schools waste 530,000 tons of food annually. That’s right, sadly, about 70% of the waste that we throw away without a second thought could be repurposed to create a nutrient rich product that supports healthy soil and can grow nutritious food without using chemical fertilizers. 
Wasted Food is Harmful to the Environment
When food waste rots in a landfill it releases harmful greenhouse gasses that trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere and contribute to global warming. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, food is the single largest category of waste put in landfills. Food in landfills emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States. 
However, when food is composted, it releases no greenhouse gasses at all, effectively reducing emissions mentioned above.
Composting Is So Easy!
Composting is nature’s way of recycling. It happens every second of every day when dead plants and animals decompose and break down into soil in natural environments. When food waste is combined with carbon rich materials like dried leaves, sawdust, shredded paper, moisture and heat from the sun, it will quickly break down and transform into humus, also known as compost. This can be done in a backyard compost bin, a community garden or sometimes through your municipal waste hauler. When added to gardens and landscaping, finished compost will help rebuild the soil nutrients and hold in moisture. Best of all – it’s the best soil to help you grow nutritious food!
Watch these two short videos to learn why composting is important!
Step 4: Pre-Activity Reflection Questions
Reflection and Educator Observation Questions
Use the following questions to guide students and reflect on what they’ve learned. Provided questions can be accessed in slideshow or worksheet format.
- Observe your lunchtime trash for a day. How much of it is made up of food waste?
- Where do you see food being wasted the most and why do you think it happens?
- What do you think happens to the food scraps your school throws away?
- Describe a time when you’ve seen natural things decompose or break down in nature.
- Why do you think composting is important?
- What answers did you hear from the reflection questions?
Step 5: Take Action – How to Compost at School
Lead students through the “Composting at School” activity with guided instructions. Check out “Pro Tips” with each step for useful help:
1. Meet Your School’s Decision Makers
Have students set up a meeting with their principal and custodial staff to obtain permission and discuss the best way to incorporate composting into the custodial staff’s current routine.
2. Choose Where On Campus You’ll Compost
Composting activities will ideally take place in two locations on campus. Food scraps will be collected in the lunch area and taken to a separate location for composting. Take a look around your campus; ideal areas for composting are a school garden or an area that is away from classrooms and a lot of foot traffic.
3. Get What You Need to Succeed
Obtain or purchase the correct compost units for your campus. Learn more by checking out the Types of Compost Systems info sheet.
- If you will be composting in a garden area or have access to a sunny, out of the way area with a dirt ground then a traditional bin composting unit is right for you.
- If you will be composting on concrete or have limited space then a tumbler is right for you.
- Make sure to have enough compost units for the amount of food waste you will want to compost (if you are adding food scraps daily, you may want to have 2-3 bins that you can rotate use between weekly, adding to one while the others rest).
- If your school has access to municipal composting services through your waste hauler then food scraps will go directly into your waste hauler compost cart to be picked up by your waste hauler.
Contact your City or School District to see if you can get a free compost bin!
4. Teach Your Classmates About Compost
- Students can use this handy script – our Student Composting Education Script – to teach their peers why composting is important, which food scraps can be composted and how to sort their food waste.
- Ideal ways to get the message to your school are by hosting a school assembly, giving classroom presentations, creating a video (and/or use the video link provided earlier!) to be distributed to students or shown in class.
5. Plan Where Students Will Collect Food Waste
Develop a plan for collecting food waste and brown materials for onsite composting. (For municipal composting, food will be added directly to your waste hauler’s food waste cart and then be placed in the appropriate location to be picked up by your waste hauler for off site composting).
- Obtain or purchase buckets or cans that will be used only as a “food waste” receptacle.
- Print the signs provided to place on food waste receptacles to show students what can and can not be placed in the food scrap collection (this will differ for onsite and municipal composting).
- Announce to all students and faculty when food waste collection will begin.
- Brown materials like leaves and dried clippings will need to be added to the food waste at a 2:1 ratio. Make a plan to collect these from campus maintenance workers or school parents and store them in bags or a designated bin near the compost units on campus.
Have a Leaf Drive in the fall to build up a surplus of dried leaves for composting.
6. Plan How Students Will Manage the Compost System
Develop a plan and schedule for transporting food scraps to the composter to be composted. Use our Campus Composting Team Organizer to organize your team. Ideally this will be done by a team of students who can take turns performing the following tasks:
- Review the Campus Composting Overview and “How To” doc (Pro Tip: print this document and post it near your composting supplies).
- Before lunch: place food waste receptacle with signage next to trash/recycle cans in the lunch area. Feel free to use our Compost Collection Receptacle Signs.
- After all students have eaten: Collect the food waste receptacles and take them to the compost area.
- Weigh food waste and record on our Composting at School Weekly Tracker .
- Empty the food waste into the compost bin and rinse the receptacle.
- Maintain your compost! Learn how to maintain your compost in bins and in tumblers below.
- Return tools and food waste receptacle to designated storage spots.
- At the end of the week, turn in the Composting at School Weekly Tracker form to your project manager
- Turn the compost mixture with a shovel or spade to add oxygen.
- Add water if the mixture is too dry, compost should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. (pro tip: use the water from rinsing your food waste receptacle to add moisture to your compost bin).
- Add a thick layer of brown materials covering all of the visible food scraps to prevent flies.
- Close and secure lid of compost unit.
- Add twice as many brown materials as food scraps
- Add water only if the mixture is too dry, compost should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Food scraps will normally provide all of the moisture needed in a tumbler.
- Close and secure unit door and rotate tumbler 3-4 times
7. Compost Achieved
Harvest compost when ready. Once a compost bin or tumbler is full it takes 3-4 months to break down into compost. Finished compost should look like dark, crumbly soil with few large pieces. It should smell like the forest. Shovel finished compost through half inch chicken wire or screen to filter out larger pieces (which can be put back into composter to finish breaking down). Store screened compost in a bin or tub then add it to landscaping or garden soil as needed.
Step 6: Post-Activity Reflection Questions
Student Reflection and Real World Application Questions
- What did you enjoy most about composting your campus food waste?
- What were some roadblocks or difficulties you encountered?
- What surprised you the most about the compost process?
Real World Application
What will change in your life now that you have completed this project?
Step 7: Report Students’ Impact
Compile all the data that your teams gathered and complete the Compost Wrap-Up Form.
- Types of Compost Systems
- Student Composting Education Script
- Campus Composting Overview and “How To”
- Compost Collection Receptacle Signs
- Composting at School Sign Up Sheet
- Campus Composting Team Organizer
- Composting at School Weekly Tracker
- Composting at School Slides
- Vericomposting Instructions
Congrats on completing the Tree Planting Eco-Toolkit!
Did you enjoy this toolkit? Find your next project here!