St. Stephen’s Nears its Goal of Composting 100% of Campus Food Waste

“Respect for the earth” is not just a phrase Spartans recite each day in Chapel as part of the school prayer. Students are activating these powerful words by piling the robust composting program into high gear. 

In the fall of 2023, the Green Goblins environmental club and the Director of Outdoor Education Charlton Perry set an audacious goal for the academic year: to compost 100% of the food waste on campus and reuse it for landscaping, soil and habitation restoration. To date, Perry says the only food waste not being collected is food tossed in the Dining Hall on the weekends.

Reaching this goal has taken commitment and shared strategy in both Middle and Upper School over the last few years. Prior to the pandemic, the Green Goblins – sponsored by Upper School environmental science and biology instructor Lauren Murphy – were composting the food waste from just the Middle School lunches. Post-Covid, the program expanded to lunches for all grades, but did not include food waste from the kitchen, and meals served at breakfast and dinner. At the start of this school year, discarded Dining Hall food from breakfast and dinner during the week was added to the mix. "Green Goblin" Rebecca Cole ’25 has loved being part of the program during the transformation.

"I've learned a lot about environmental advocacy and solutions, and I continue to learn about composting through hands-on work," said Cole. "Spending time outside caring for nature is a unique experience I'm grateful to have."

Green Goblins member Bryson Gibbs ’25 is excited about the positive impact the growing program is having on the climate.

“Since the St. Stephen's dining hall serves thousands of meals a day, it produces a lot of food waste,” said Gibbs. “By composting, we are diverting food waste from landfills where it produces around 58% of global methane emissions each year. I enjoy the fulfillment I get from knowing I am making a real difference in the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, being released into the atmosphere, which causes global warming and climate change.”

Nine to 12 student volunteers work together each weekday to achieve this impressive environmental feat. Of the nearly a dozen students, some are Green Goblins, others are Middle School students studying eco-literature and the rest are Upper School students earning direct service learning hours. 

“It’s a priority for me to try to keep this as student-driven as possible, and not just one more thing for operations to manage,” said Perry. He and Murphy help guide the students, answer questions and manage the volunteer schedule.

In the Dining Hall, you will see clearly labeled trash receptacles; green ones labeled “Compost” and black ones labeled “Landfill.” Diners are responsible for disposing their trash in the correct bin. Before and after each lunch period, student volunteers quickly swoop in. Their job starts with lifting the compost trash bags out of the three green trash receptacles located near the dish return tray. Volunteers then weigh each bag on a nearby scale and record the weight before rolling the bags through the kitchen to the back of the building and tossing them into the bed of a golf cart. The students then head back inside to reline the trash bins with fresh compost bags for the next lunch cycle.

After Middle School lunch, the process repeats itself for both Upper School lunches. Following the final lunch period, the compost bags are driven to the compost pile, which is surrounded by a tall chain link fence to keep the animals out. Once the compostable compost bags are piled up on the ground, the students puncture the bags to let some air in, which aids in the composting process. Later in the afternoon, Mr. Perry swings by once a day to dump a load of mulch over the fresh food waste. Perry said it’s hard to estimate how long it will take before the compost is ready for use, which is his main goal.

“If we just pile it up and ignore it, it's going to break down and be compost, but we can optimize it,” said Perry.

Soon, the sixth-grade eco-literature class will start monitoring the system, measuring the temperature and moisture level of the compost to make sure it’s primed for breaking down properly. 

The composting program is also on the right path to saving the school money.

Perry said prior to the program, more than half of the Dining Hall dumpster was weighed down by food waste. By eliminating that weight, the dumpsters won’t have to be emptied as often. Cost savings should also come with spending less on compost and mulch for campus landscaping.
Address: 6500 St. Stephen's Dr., Austin, TX 78746
Phone: (512) 327-1213