Sparta High food digester: Turning garbage into gold

   Sparta High School’s food digester project is reaping all kinds of benefits, but none more so than the enthusiasm it has garnered.
   “The kids are what’s making this work,” said Chuck Amundsen, high school head custodian. “If it wasn’t for the students we couldn’t do it.”
   The digester project is an environmental sustainability effort led by the Earth Club. Using just $3.89 in energy cost, the digester turns 250 pounds of daily lunchroom food waste into 20 gallons of distilled water and 30 pounds of compost in 12 hours.
   The project was among seven programs statewide to receive the 2015 Standing Up For Rural Schools, Libraries and Communities Award for demonstrating the “great potential and collaborative spirit of rural Wisconsin.”
   That collaborative effort is on display every school day when community volunteers join students in the waste-stream line separating the recyclables into their proper containers.
   Volunteers Judy Shure, Bobi Jo Cripe, Marie Grewal, Barbara Rice, Kristin Nussdorfer, Alice Olson, Laurel Brandt, Carol Gatzke and Jean Button work right along side students in the “disassembly line”.
   Another cog in the system is Jerry Martel of Modern Disposal, whose crews have been helping the high school maintain an efficient and timely pick up of its recycling.
   “This awesome partnership exists between community members, students and staff,” said Joe Cook, Earth Club advisor. “It is amazing to see high schoolers working side-by-side with citizens of Sparta.”
   “I think people like the idea of it,” said Jackie Paige, a high school senior who was part of the collaborative effort to get the digester into the school.
   While she sees the positive impact it has on her fellow students,  Paige points out that the program has other beneficial consequences as well.
   “By us reducing our food waste, that’s only going to prolong the life of the landfill,” she said, noting the Monroe County Landfill is on pace to fill up by 2020.
   Wider use of the digesters – which are more accurately described as dehydrators – could extend the life of landfills significantly.
   The digester has helped the school cut it’s lunchroom waste by 85%, reducing the number of times the school’s trash compactor has to be emptied into the Monroe County Landfill.
   Food waste went into the trash compactor along with waste products like milk cartons and other containers before the school increased its recycling.
   “Every time the compactor is emptied it costs $105,” said Amundsen.
   That may not seem like much of a savings, considering the digester’s price tag of $25,000 (although donations covered much of the cost). But add in the fact that the machine also is producing a marketable product, and the project starts taking on a positive fiscal quality.
   While staff and students have yet to figure out how much it can be sold for, the end product of the digester is a sterile, nutrient-rich, soil amendment. It’s basically compost but since it isn’t produced in the same way, it can’t be labeled compost.
   That aspect of the program has presented even more educational opportunities, such as science classes determining ways to adjust the pH level of the water byproduct so it can be used for watering plants.
   Students in the school’s card shop have developed tags for the compost, which will include the price, a sustainability message and an application ratio.
   With all that going for it, other people are starting to sit up and take notice.
   The digester project, which is the first and only of its kind in a public school in the country, is being looked at for possible duplication by Bethany St. Joseph Nursing Home, Fort McCoy, the HoChunk Nation and the Morrow Home.
   U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine even heard of it and was so impressed she wrote a letter to the school district, congratulating all involved.
Staff and students at  Sparta Meadowview’s STEM Academy are coming on board with recycling and sustainability initiatives as well, said Cook
   Students, along with head custodian Steve Dunn observed the high school’s process and looked at it digester. They have begun sorting the recyclables from the eighth-grade lunch period.
“They are beginning small and working towards obtaining a machine of their own to further the Sparta School District's sustainability initiatives,” said Cook.  
   But, according to Cook, you can’t underestimate the impact a project like this has on the Earth’s future. He says upcoming generations are inheriting a world with profound environmental problems for which they’ll need to be prepared.
   Cody Micheel, a senior who has been a member of the Earth Club for almost three years, is representative of his fellow club members. He helps out in the cafeteria two or three times a week and gets a sense of self-satisfaction from what he’s doing.
   “I like that I’m a part of it,” said Micheel, who wants to go into an environmental  or earth-science related field when he graduates. “It motivates me to do more and it’s helping the earth. There are plenty of people involved. I’m just a member doing my part.”

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