Opinion: High school mulch sales produce too much plastic waste

The events raise money and build community, but is there a better way to do both?

On Saturday, April 2, our local high school mulch sale sold and delivered 11,500 bags of mulch, topsoil and compost in the Aspen Hill and Rockville area of Montgomery County. More than 400 students—a quarter of Rockville High School’s student population—and 120 adult volunteers came together to load and deliver the bags to the homes of community members who had placed orders. Event T-shirts in our orange and black school colors, hot dogs and good weather provided us with the block party we needed after two years of the pandemic. 

As the volunteer mulch chair for Rockville High’s Booster Club and the organizer of the sale, I could not be more elated. And yet thinking about the environmental harm caused by adding 11,500 plastic bags and thousands of yards of shrink wrap to a trash stream that could end up in ocean garbage patches, plus the carbon we emitted making the deliveries, has rankled since I took the job at the start of this year. 

Across the county and the nation, high schools, booster clubs, and PTAs use mulch sales and other similar fundraising tools to provide financial support for school activities, choosing community over climate in a trade-off that many do not even recognize. How much schools raise can vary dramatically by location and neighborhood wealth but relative to other fundraising within a school, mulch and other similar sales are often the largest annual events.

The scope of the problem is enormous. There are roughly 24,000 public high schools in the United States. If 10 percent of them organize mulch sales and sell, say 10,000 bags of mulch each, that’s 24 million plastic bags—a staggering number.  

Our sales at Rockville High School are in the middle of the pack. Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School, which had a sale the week before us, sold about 23,000 bags. Local scout troops also hold sales. And, of course, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and hundreds of other smaller suppliers sell millions of bags of plastic-wrapped mulch. Indeed, plastic use is a gigantic and neglected problem in the massive American garden industry, which tries so hard to be seen as natural and organic.

Is there a solution? Can we minimize the impact of school fundraising on the environment? I asked many people this question throughout the eight weeks I spent organizing the mulch sale.

Some told me that if only we had bigger school budgets, we would not need to do this—or that I should find a grant that would provide the same amount of money. These views neglect the reality that the ability and willingness of a school community to come together leads to successful mulch sales and to bigger school budgets or grants. The underlying community participation drives them both. At a time when security concerns can turn school buildings into mini-fortresses, there are incredible benefits to school communities coming together for a common purpose.

Large events like mulch sales are especially important after the pandemic diminished in-person community participation—though online community participation has clearly grown. At Rockville High, changing demographics have made community organizing difficult for several years now. The school has a minority-majority population but parent and community leaders have not represented that diversity. During the height of the pandemic, half the students in the school—freshmen and sophomores at the time—and their families never experienced a community-building event like the mulch sale.

I had difficulty reaching families and students outside of normal school communications of which there are so many that they are often overlooked. The PTSA and Booster Club memberships represent a really small fraction of students’ families.

Why not have a school auction instead? No plastic bags needed. In Washington, D.C., where we previously lived, one boozy auction night at our public elementary school brought in more than $100,000. However, not only are the socioeconomics of our former neighborhood in the District and where we now live in Montgomery County vastly different, but also the county’s rules regarding serving alcohol in public facilities are stringent. I have never seen alcohol served at a school-related event.

One solution worth considering is selling bulk mulch. If I get this job again next year, this idea would be worth looking into but would require entirely rethinking our current “barn-raising” model where hundreds of volunteers gather one day a year to deliver thousands of bags of mulch.

Bulk mulch cannot be loaded, unloaded or transported easily. We would need special equipment, shovels and wheelbarrows at least and landscaping trucks rather than the U-Haul trucks we rented for the day. We would probably need to spread the delivery out over several weeks rather than complete it in one day.

Most importantly, our customers would have to be willing to accept bulk mulch drop off on their property. I am confident that those customers who are more environmentally conscious would switch to bulk mulch immediately, but there are probably many customers who like the neat stacks of mulch in plastic bags.

The good news is that we already do offer spreading services in which the school’s athletic teams go house to house spreading the mulch that we delivered. We can prioritize spreading for those who buy bulk mulch and really shift the mulch sale to be more about spreading and gardening than delivery. Here’s another idea: If we decide to shift toward more spreading and gardening over several weeks rather than on one day, why not offer a composting service that could be organized by teachers and families and run by students? 

Not only would that idea raise money and reduce some of our transportation needs, but it also would provide students with learning opportunities in agriculture, entrepreneurship and operations management. Rockville High School no longer offers horticulture courses, in part because there were not enough interested students. But reviving a modern agriculture-training pathway could be an addition to the school district’s efforts to expand technical education.

These are enormously difficult changes to bring about—where tradition is overturned, rules have to be changed, and community members have to dramatically alter their vision of an event. Rethinking mulch sales to reduce plastic waste is not something we will find on the climate change agendas of environmental groups or even governments and yet, as a mulch sale organizer, this is what keeps me awake at night.

As published in Bethesda Magazine on April 23, 2022.

3 responses to “Opinion: High school mulch sales produce too much plastic waste”

  1. This is brilliant – couldn’t agree more. You are helping people to think about plastic waste instead of taking it for granted. And bulk drop off is a good idea.

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