Prospect Sierra School's Zero Waste Lunch Efforts - Now on Eco-Company TV!
Reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (the “4 R’s”) was the mantra heard throughout Prospect Sierra School in 2004, as fourth-graders investigated the amount of waste produced by students and faculty. As a result of their thorough waste audits and “garbology” efforts, they were astonished to learn that the school was generating 17,380 pounds of reclaimed recyclables, 2,880 pounds of potential additional recyclables that were being thrown away as garbage each year, and 30,967 pounds of garbage — approximately 25 tons of waste generated per year on the school’s two campuses. Most of this was produced on the once per month pizza days. That’s a lot of waste!
Fourth grade teachers Martha Salzman and Lucia Blakeslee worked with Service Learning Parent Chair Deborah Moore, and Service Learning Coordinator Kathryn Lee to plan this fourth grade community service learning project to reduce waste.
May 2011 Update: Three high school students, now Prospect Sierra alumni, came back in 2011 to see how the waste audits they helped initiate are going. Watch the Eco Company TV video:
Soon after their eye-opening discovery, the fourth-graders delved deeper into the science of garbology -- classroom by classroom and piece by piece. In time, the fourth graders established a worm bin, published the Recycling Times, designed their own website (readysetrecycle.org) and continued to learn while educating the school community about the importance of reducing waste at Prospect Sierra. With the help of dedicated parent volunteers and the perseverance of the fourth-grade teachers, the project continued and built upon itself for several years. These efforts were recognized when the West Contra Costa County Integrated Waste Management Authority awarded the 2006 Grand Prize for recycling to the Prospect Sierra’s K-4 Tapscott campus.
In 2007, Kathryn and Deborah established the “Green Squad” elective to engage middle school students in the greening of the Prospect Sierra’s Avis campus. One project was for students to build recycling bins for each of the two campuses, and by May the middle schoolers had built 8 recycling centers made out of salvaged wood and other recycled materials. These "centers" helped create a clear system for where to put food scraps, paper, and bottles and cans. No longer was there confusion about "where should I put this?"
While progress was being made, there were still concerns about the amount of food being thrown out during snack and lunch times. Not only was a lot of food waste thrown away, but uneaten food was being simply tossed into the garbage. Students and teachers alike were appalled to find whole bananas and apples in the garbage cans.While the school was making strides in creating a "system," it was clear that behavior change was also needed to get all grades participating and to remind students of the value of food.
With these objectives in mind, a plan was developed to widen the waste reduction and recycling efforts from the fourth grade classroom to one that would serve all the elementary school students. The plan’s primary goals were to reduce the overall amount of waste generated during lunchtime; to provide each K-4 student with opportunities to fully participate; and to take increased responsibility as individuals and as a school community.
The results have been rewarding beyond expectations. On a rotating basis, each month a new class shares in the responsibility of monitoring the recycling bins built by the middle school students. This includes educating other students about how to decide what materials could be brought home for future uses (food and packaging containers), which waste needs to be recycled, and which food scraps can be composted. After these decisions, the students are left with the remainder – real garbage. Students wrote and performed their own skits for assemblies to teach the new practices school-wide. One performance included the song "Stop! In the Name of Earth (Know what your planet's worth)." Another performance told the story of a banana grown in Costa Rica, transported by ship to California, lovingly packed into a kid's lunch and then tossed uneaten into the trash. What a waste of all that work and energy and resources!
Thanks to caring students, teachers, staff, and parents, Prospect Sierra now had a successful waste-free lunch system well underway: less waste, a thriving worm bin, and several compost bins producing nutritious soil for the school gardens. The number of garbage cans needed in the schoolyard was reduced by half. Phil Gilsenan, 4th grade science teacher, and part of the waste-free effort observed, “An abundance of garbage cans had given us permission to dump freely without thinking.”
Next came the effort to more closely analyze the waste from a different viewpoint. To measure and evaluate the project, students began to randomly audit garbage, food compost, and recyclables during a monthly “weigh-in.“ These audits enabled the school to monitor and better understand where more efforts were needed. Students determined that the “big” waste items are yogurt containers, juice boxes, and milk containers. A major contributor to unrecoverable waste was also unfinished drinks — liquids that are disposed of in the garbage cans. Since the inception of the new lunch program, there has been a significant reduction in the amount of waste. From the very first garbage audit - where an estimated 86 pounds of garbage was generated in one day - the wastestream has been reduced to about 2 pounds of garbage per day!
Equally important is the key commitment of students at Prospect Sierra to take the message of waste reduction home. Phil notes, “As I look around the schoolyard at lunchtime, I have noticed that many parents are making conscientious efforts to pack waste-free lunches. For example, more students are now bringing lunches packed in reusable containers.” He adds, “But we can always do more. Our ultimate goal is a zero-waste lunch. Everything should be eaten or taken home.”
So students, parent volunteers, and staff continue to spread the word among families, suggesting ideas and resources for creating zero-waste lunches. One step at a time, students, families, and faculty at the Tapscott campus of Prospect Sierra School are nearing the goal of a zero-waste lunch.
Based on an article by Phil Gilsenan and Jacqueline Kent of Prospect Sierra School.