What’s UP with UPcycling at SEM?


The first week of 2018 marked the beginning of upcycling at SEM thanks to Chef Alex and Natural Upcycling, Batavia, NY based company.

Natural Upcycling’s focus is to collect food waste and turn it into a renewable resource. Food waste from SEM and a number of schools and stores including every Wegmans and D’Youville College is taken to Batavia where it undergoes a process known as anaerobic digestion, which results in natural gas and electricity.

The difference between trash and upcycling bins? Certainly not appearance. One greatly helps our environment while the other does not.

Why don’t more places upcycle? A few possible concerns are cost, smell and pests.

SEM does not employ the kitchen staff directly, it contracts with Personal Touch Catering to run the kitchen. Personal Touch pays the $18 a week fee for SEM and other Personal Touch locations to upcycle and does not consider it expensive.

Chef Alex also said there is no pest issue although there could be if the upkeep was not up to par. The upkeep is not added to the workload of the SEM maintenance or kitchen staff – instead, Natural Upcycling cleans the bins during the twice-a-week pickups at SEM.

To have organic and food waste outside for several days brings along with it the idea of stench. There is no difference between the food kept in garbage cans or upcycling bins and the smells is no worse than usual. In the winter a reusable plastic bag is used to prevent the food from getting stuck to the bin and in the warmer weather, an all natural enzyme cleaner is used.

A student upcycled her leftover salad with ease and was off to her next class!

Chef Alex is not concerned with any of these factors, in fact, he acted as a catalyst for Personal Touch to look into upcycling. Earlier in the year he said he started to look online about upcycling because it was “becoming a big thing” and he asked his employer what could be done at the company. “I’m not a die heart environmentalist but I do what a can to eliminate my carbon footprint,” he said.

Clearly, Chef Alex and the environment are happy with Personal Touch’s decision but the student body has mixed reactions to upcycling. Jackie Schanzlin’ 18 said they started it at Nardin in 2012 when she was a student there and Katie Nebbia ’19 said her former school, Nichols, had a fruit peel bin so she was happy to use the new bins. “I did it yesterday and I felt good about myself for it,”  she said.

Athena Mathews ’19 was not at school the day upcycling was announced and considers it confusing. She expressed gratitude for the signs detailing what should go in each bin – but  Katie Kraft ’18 thinks reading slows people down. “I really think there should be pictures instead of words on the signs. The faster SEM girls register what they need to do the more likely they will actually partake.”

Environmental consciousness might be new for some SEM girls but the kitchen staff helps the environment in a number of ways –  it works hard to reduce, reuse and recycle.

In order to reduce, the kitchen staff keeps production records – so can predict how much of each food item to buy. They know many people are vegetarians or skip lunch so they make enough food to the feed students who typically eat the lunches. The kitchen staff has cut down serving sizes because according to Chef Alex, “a lot of times people take too much and throw it away, which impacts how much waste we have.”

SEM uses china plates rather than paper products and reuses paper labels in order to reduce paper waste. The kitchen staff reuses food by having a leftover section in the cafeteria from the residential dinner or yesterday’s lunch.

And now, the kitchen staff recycles through upcycling. An eco-friendly kitchen was not always the case at SEM. Chef Alex recalled that when he took over six or seven years ago, the woman who used to his job did not recycle. 

“I really think there should be pictures instead of words on the signs. The faster SEM girls register what they need to do the more likely they will actually partake,” said Katie Kraft.

SEM students are encouraged to stay aware of the environment throughout the school day and life.  “There has been a little food in the non-organic bin but for the most everyone has been on board,”Chef Alex said, “I think so far we are doing good. Every few months they are going to send us an update on the energy we are saving.”