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LAUSD throws away the equivalent of 200 elephants in food waste each week

Mike Szymanski | September 8, 2016

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Photos that were presented in the Organic Waste Recycling report.

LA Unified throws away an average of one ton of food per school every week. That’s the equivalent of 600 tons of organic waste for the entire district each week, or “equivalent to 200 elephants of waste a week,” said Robert Laughton, director of the school district’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

Laughton gave a report Tuesday at the first school board committee meeting of the new school year, the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee chaired by Monica Ratliff.

Although it sounds like a lot of wasted food, the district has made improvements and continues to train schools about recycling every year, Laughton said. In five years, the cost of the recycling program has dropped from $9.5 million to $5.2 million a year.

On Friday the school district will issue a Request for Proposals for the recycling program, which has been operated for the past few years by Republic Services. The district will look at all options when Republic’s contract concludes at the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, school board members cited other problems with the waste and plan to bring in the new Food Services director, Joseph Vaughn, at the next budget committee meeting. The cost of the food waste was not addressed Tuesday.

Most notably, Ratliff was surprised that schools are directed for environmental reasons not to pour unused milk down the drain, pointing out photographs in Laughton’s presentation taken this week at district schools.

Robert Laughton, director of Office of Environmental Health and Safety

Robert Laughton, director of LA Unified’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

“So, we can’t put milk in the drain and they’re putting milk in these black trash bags,” Ratliff said. “We see that milk is being poured into the trash can. So, we’re serving milk, then pouring milk into black trash bags and then carting the milk to another county to eliminate it.”

Board member Scott Schmerelson chimed in: “And then children are dragging those bags across campus and they leak all over, and we’re not supposed to water it down because of water savings.”

Laughton said, “I know that’s not a good situation, but we will have to wash it down.”

Ratliff said, “That’s a terrible situation. It seems pretty terrible.”

The school district is trying to cut back on waste to comply with statewide mandatory organic recycling restrictions signed by Gov. Brown in 2014. The law requires large businesses to begin recycling organic waste starting in April 2016 to encourage composting and reduce the amount of waste going to landfills.

Another way to reduce food waste is a food donation system but for now there are many restrictions. For example, the only food that can be donated is extras that weren’t served.

Schmerelson, who worked as a school principal before being elected to the school board, said he knew of many food banks that wanted to take the food. But “the rules and restrictions and insurance are so convoluted that people just give up and don’t do it.”

Meanwhile, Laughton said that 400 schools have implemented recycling programs so far, and every school gets comprehensive training each year. Republic has expanded the recycling training programs and has held essay contests for students.

Meanwhile, Ratliff asked what the penalties were if the organic recycling demands were not met.

“They have yet to determine that,” Laughton replied.

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