HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - When students at certain Horry County Schools throw out their trash at the end of lunch, they're dropping the majority of what's left on their trays into a compost bin.
Now, that compost is helping them grow even more food to eat.
"We're really bringing this full circle in terms of what we're able to do with our food waste," said Greg Sponseller, sustainability analyst for Horry County Schools.
The school district launched a composting pilot program at the beginning of the school year at Burgess Elementary, River Oaks Elementary and Ocean Bay Middle School.
Seaside and Ocean Drive elementary schools have since joined, and Lakewood Elementary will start composting after spring break.
Students sort the items on their trays at the end of lunch and then put trash, recycling and compost in separate containers.
That process has helped Burgess Elementary go from collecting 25 bags to two bags of trash from the cafeteria each day.
"With all of the wet trash being separated from the landfill trash, we don't have the leaky bags anymore," Sponseller said. "We're able to keep all of that in the nice, new composting containers that we have and it saves a lot of time and effort."
SMART Recycling picks up the food waste three days a week and brings it to the Horry County Solid Waste Authority, which started accepting food compost last August.
The solid waste authority combines the food waste with other organic materials to transform it into a nutrient-dense soil within months.
HCS has sent 50 tons of food waste to the composting facility so far. The monthly average is about 23 tons right now and that will continue to grow as more schools are added to the program.
Schools receive the rich soil back from the Horry County Solid Waste Authority once the process is complete.
Burgess Elementary students planted collard greens, broccoli, squash, cucumbers and cabbage in an outdoor garden this week, which they will be able to eventually eat.
"They're planting vegetables and then we're able to collect all of those and bring them back into the cafeteria," Sponseller said. "If we have any food waste there, it's going to start the cycle all over again."
From sorting leftovers in the cafeteria to planting gardens with composted soil, the program offers many learning experiences for the students.
"It's a powerful learning tool for the teachers and the students really see the value behind reusing useful materials," Sponseller said.
District staff will look at a program expansion strategy this summer.