LEBANON — Lunchtime at Lebanon High School is no longer the usual grind.
Instead of tossing their leftovers in the trash on the way back to class, students now pitch them through a small window into the swirling vortex of an openmouthed machine.
The machine, a pulper, sucks the trash down through a series of whirling blades, similar to a giant garbage disposal. The pulped mass spits through a chute into a garbage can.
The result, essentially, is a bin full of spitwads — but they’re the smallest, most efficient, and someday may be the most environmentally friendly spitwads the Lebanon Community School District has ever seen.
The new pulper, in use for just two weeks so far, chews up garbage so efficiently that it reduces the daily mealtime trash from 17 garbage cans to one, said Pam Lessley, the district’s director of nutrition services.
That’s right: 17 to one.
“Styrofoam, plastic, paper, cardboard, all of our sensitive documents, they just throw them in there,” Lessley said.
She first heard about pulpers when she traveled to Mississippi two years ago as part of a national panel sponsored by the National Food Service Management Institute. The machines are more common in schools in the eastern part of the country, she learned.
“For the kids, it’s just like using a garbage can. They don’t even have a garbage can. They have this,” Lessley said of one such school she later observed in Florida. “They don’t even have a dishwasher. It’s all paper.”
Back home in the west, Lessley started researching the idea but couldn’t find anyone who used a pulper. California schools? Never heard of them. Eugene? Salem? Nope. Somat, a Pennsylvania-based company that makes the pulpers, said as far as it knew, the only West Coast agency to use its product was a Portland hospital.
So Lessley worked with Somat to find a used machine, paid about $35,000 from her own food service budget for the product and the plumbing to make it work (new ones are closer to $60,000, she said) and had it installed at the high school.
“They say we should be able to make up the cost for this in about two or three years, depending on the size of the school,” she said.
In the meantime, Lessley expects Lebanon High to be able to eliminate one of its big metal Dumpsters. The school fills three or four such containers twice a week.
Senior Kayla Green, 17, put together a video with classmates in her Advanced Placement Environmental Science class to educate students on the use of the pulper. The video aired every morning on classroom televisions during the first week of the pulper’s use.
Feedback has been good so far, Green said. “I think they understand. They were flexible: ‘I’m going to change my routine.’”
For some, however, the learning curve is still a little sharp.
“What do you put in there?” junior Amber Murray, 15, asked her friend Linda Rodriguez, 16, after lunch on the fifth day of pulper use.
“Everything,” Rodriguez said with a shrug.
Murray dubiously eyed her empty corn dog stick in its paper container. “Just, like, throw the whole thing in there? That’s kind of, like, weird.”
The pulpers can’t actually hande everything. Metal and glass must still be recycled. Plastic sandwich wrap and plastic shopping bags can’t go through because they tie up the blades. A food service employee monitors the machine each lunch period to make sure only acceptable items come in.
But for the cardboard food containers, plastic forks, paper fast-food bags, half-eaten sandwiches, soda cups and straws, potato chip bags and candy bar wrappers that make up the bulk of many a high schooler’s lunch, it works just fine.
Eventually, Lessley said, she hopes to switch the school to biodegradable cups and utensils and be able to order products that come in biodegradable containers instead of plastic bags. At that point, all the chewed-up spitwads can just be dumped straight onto school gardens or flowerbeds as compost.
Technically, LHS could be doing that now. All the monitors would have to do would be to make students separate out their forks, spoons and Styrofoam cups along with the plastic wrap and bags. But Lessley figured it was better to start small at first, and concentrate on reducing overall bulk waste.
“This is something food service is doing for the school district to help them save money to use in other ways,” she said. “Ultimately, we’d like to pulp all of our garbage.”