In celebration of Earth Day this month, students, teachers and volunteers participated in a Plastic Awareness Week and Plastic Free Day at Parkview Elementary School in Bellingham, WA. The program goal was to see if we could reduce single use plastics and improve waste management at lunches. We included a combination of classroom activities, guest speakers and adult supervision of the waste station in the cafeteria. Overall the students cut their plastic waste by 17% from Monday to Friday.
“This is the first week we’ve been able to put plastic recycling and compost from lunches into the city recycling and Food Plus Compost” says Mr. Scott, the school’s custodian. Previous to this week, the recycling and compost bins were so mixed with food and landfill waste that most everything went straight into the dumpsters.
As part of a larger, ongoing initiative from the Bellingham School District, Parkview had recently removed plastic cutlery and straws from the cafeteria, which was an impressive step toward reducing waste. The Whatcom Farm-to-School program has been successfully working to reduce food waste in schools and encourage composting within the district and Re-Sources has an ongoing Green Schools program that helps teachers implement waste and energy reduction curriculum. Principal Mylo Allen commented that furthering the effort with a Plastic Awareness Week would be highly supported by the Parkview community.
All the plastics we generate will remain on earth indefinitely and it’s up to us as consumers to make educated choices about what we’re buying. Simply noticing how much of our food is wrapped in plastic is a step in the right direction. Incidentally, many of the food containers and wrappers are not free of BPA and other similar chemicals. By buying in bulk and portioning food into reusable containers, we can drastically reduce the amount of plastic we generate. We saw so many creative, reusable containers this week and many families are clearly on target with reducing waste where they can.
One strength of the program came from pairing classroom learning about the “why” behind reducing Single Use Plastics and separating waste correctly. They learned that Single Use Plastics (SUPs) include anything we use once and throw away like straws, candy wrappers, juice containers, single-serving snacks, coffee cups, plastic utensils and plastic wrap. Choosing to eliminate these items from our meals and foregoing the minor conveniences they provide is a constant challenge for most people, but is an important issue to address for the sake of the envioronment.
We saw the most reduction in plastic in grade levels where teachers participated in the voluntary exercises and invited the guest speakers. Rodd Pemble from SSC showed students examples of plastic waste and alternatives they could buy instead. Mark Peterson from Sustainable Connections explained what local businesses are doing to reduce food and plastic waste, and how we can ask businesses to make earth-friendly choices like adopting an “only by request” policy for straws.
To help students separate waste in the lunchroom, we created mobiles of real eye-level examples of the trash and recycling students were throwing away. Volunteers Heather Alvis, Mary Alvis, Mardi Solomon, and Cindy Scott from Whatcom Farm-to-School helped manage the waste station. Ideally, we would have student-monitors at each lunch throughout the year, so the school can be self-sustaining and still produce clean recycling and compost.
By counting kids and the number of SUPs in each of the 3 lunches, we were able to compare the ratio of kids to SUPs on Monday and Friday. We calculated an impressive 37% decrease in SUPs for the 2nd lunch. In recognition of their success, 2nd lunch was awarded a “Golden Lunchbox” at the monthly Panda Pride Assembly.
Friday, Plastic Free Day, we left kids to manage waste without adult help and found only a few items in the wrong bins. The compost for all 3 lunches poured into the Food 4 Flowers bin with no plastic. “Look at this” exclaimed Mr. Scott “the compost is 100% clean - amazing!”
After seeing first hand what kids are throwing away, making the following changes would have the biggest impact on waste reduction:
- Replace condiment packets with squeeze bottles
- Buy food in bulk or bigger containers (or make your own) instead of using single-serving sizes for yogurt, applesauce, string cheese, gummies, crackers & granola bars
- School: Install a milk dispenser to reduce milk & carton waste
- Encourage kids to wash & reuse plastic sandwich bags
- Encourage kids to take home food they don't eat
- Use wax bags or reusable cloth bags instead of plastic wrap
We appreciate the effort from all the Parkview parents and kids who reduced plastics throughout the week and hope to continue seeing a reduction in SUPs and clean waste management for the remainder of the school year.
The success of the week stemmed from support of many teachers, cooperation from custodial and lunchroom staff and Parkview administration. As we move into the new school year, perhaps Plastic Awareness Week can be plugged into the curriculum early on at Parkview, and as a community we can foster an ever increasing appreciation for building sustainable, waste conscious schools across the entire district.