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Vito Mazza stands next to Leonia elementary school’s new food waste dehydrator Dec. 9, 2019. (Photo: Jessie Glass)

LEONIA — An elementary school in the borough became the first in the state on Monday to use a food dehydrator to reduce cafeteria waste.

The system, newly installed at Leonia’s Anna C. Scott Elementary School, will reduce food waste volume and weight by 80 to 90 percent. Members of the Leonia Green Team, a group of parents and school officials, hope to limit cafeteria waste to one or two trash bags daily for the school of 720 students.

The dehydrator is the result of a collaboration between the school and the borough after the school showed repeated sustainability initiatives, said Jessie Glass, a parent and member of the team.

Students skipped through the cafeteria Monday, past signs reading “Be mindful of your actions” and “We are upstanders.”

Many were happy to engage with Julie Ulbrich, a parent and green team member, who told students, “You guys are the engine for this new project” and explained the requirements.

A new program at Leonia’s Anna C. Scott Elementary School teaches students sustainability in the cafeteria, with help from novel food waste technology. (Photo: Jessie Glass)

“What does ‘environmentally friendly’ mean?” Ulbrich asked a group of second-graders.

The students had some ideas: not littering, reusing and recycling.

They also told Ulbrich where the garbage goes: “It gets dumped in the landfill” and “We also dump it in the oceans.”

It’s the start of a project that green team members hope will expand to local middle and high schools.

“Our focus is to get from the ground up,” Ulbrich said. “It’s got to start young. This is the group that’s going to make the change.

“This is not just lunch,” she added. “This is education. The cafeteria is turning into a classroom.”

The elementary school has been at the forefront of green improvements. Last year, the school earned a $10,000 grant from Sustainable Jersey to replace plastic foam lunch trays with cardboard ones, which are more expensive.

But after a school official negotiated the cost of the cardboard trays, allowing the school to make the upgrade at no extra cost, the grant money funded recycling bins in every classroom and water bottle filling stations in the halls.

Leonia also became the first school district in Bergen County to recycle cardboard milk and juice cartons, with help from a $5,000 grant from Carton Council, a pro-recycling non-profit founded by carton manufacturers.

Since the carton program was implemented, the cafeteria waste has gone down to four or five bags daily from 11.

“They picked it up pretty quickly,” Glass said of the students, who have learned to empty remaining milk and juice into a drain and sort out the cartons before they leave the cafeteria.

Vito Mazza stands next to Leonia elementary school’s new food waste dehydrator Dec. 9, 2019. (Photo: Jessie Glass)

Starting next week, the students will separate trash, food waste, sealed food, recycling and their cardboard trays. They’ll have help from Leonia Green Team volunteers, who will be on hand during lunch for the next two weeks to guide learning.

Food waste will be loaded into the new dehydrator, which has a 250-pound capacity. Custodial staff trained to operate the machine simply push a button to set off 15 hours of churning and heating, said Vito Mazza, whose consulting firm distributes the dehydrators. Mazza attended the Leonia school as a child; now his kids are students there.

At the end of the dehydration cycle, a door in the front of the machine is opened and the machine empties itself, releasing a shrunken final product that looks like dirt and smells faintly like coffee beans.

A tube in the back drains sterile, potable water from the system — 10 gallons per 100 pounds of food waste — which will be used on school grounds or flushed back into the system, Mazza said.

The output has a 30-1 ratio of carbon and nitrogen — the ideal food for plants. It’s about 5 percent moisture and can remain stable for years if kept dry.

“It’s comparable to top-of-the-market additives,” Mazza said, adding that the product will be used on school grounds.

The dehydrator has a direct vent in the back and doesn’t produce odors, so it won’t mold or attract insects and rodents, Mazza said.

The system can hold at least a day’s worth of food waste, but it has a small footprint: It uses $5 worth of electricity daily, Mazza said. He expects the school to save two to three times that amount in trash bags and see a major return on investment in the next five to 10 years.

The dehydrator is also a more sustainable alternative to aerobic digesters, which have been used by some New Jersey schools to reduce food waste volume but require expensive resource inputs and produce heavy sludge that’s often sent back to sewer systems, “making it someone else’s problem,” Mazza said.

The dehydrator is where “environmental and fiscal sustainability meet,” he added. “You can love the environment and be a capitalist.”

The original reporting includes a slideshow, video and text. Click here to view the original presentation (paywall).

This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project. It was originally reported by Alexis Shanes for northjersey.com, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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