Zero Waste Schools Initiative: Getting into the Garbage

By Bria Jerome

As another part of my Sustainability Studies internship this semester at Seven Generations Ahead, I get the opportunity to participate in the Zero Waste Schools program. The program works with CPS schools and those in the greater Chicagoland area to limit the amount of waste generated in the lunchroom specifically.

The initiative has several steps. First, Seven Generations Ahead reaches out to a school to see if they are interested in the program; or, in some cases, a school will see a neighboring school which has implemented the program and reach out to the Zero Waste Schools (ZWS) program for information. After communication has been initiated, ZWS representatives meet with the principals and lunch room coordinators to determine a good timeframe for implementation and assessment of the dynamics of the lunchroom (i.e Does the school utilize compostable trays? How many students purchase a lunch versus bring one from home?).

After determining the logistics of how the implementation will work, ZWS representatives create a financial summary of how much composting service will cost the school as well as how much they will save on trash service. We attempt to be as specific as possible by including costs of the composting receptacle, the composting bags, and other materials or services. After the school receives this information, they can make a decision about whether or not this is a viable option for the school. If the school agrees to participate, a startup day is scheduled for ZWS representatives to implement the program.

Students raising their hands to the question “Who recycles at home?”
(Photo: B. Jerome, March 2018)

This is where the fun begins. I have been a participant in all of the steps of this process, but startup day is my favorite. On the day that the school and the ZWS representatives planned, students attend an assembly where ZWS representatives teach students about the importance of recycling and compost in ensuring a sustainable future for Earth.

At the end of the presentation, we show students how the new method of disposal will work based on four different bins (pictured below) based on four categories to limit contamination: liquids, recycling, landfill, and compost. To aid students in the placement of their leftovers, pictures and directions are placed on the signs.

Lunchroom trash bin sorting station set-up
(Photo: B. Jerome, March 2018)

After the presentation, it’s lunchtime! Students file in with starry-eyed looks as the ZWS representatives wave and ask if they’re ready to save the planet today. After students finish their lunch, we assist students in sorting their trash utilizing the four bin method (which is typically a bit chaotic). As kids hold their half empty bottle of milk and empty lunchable we remind them to empty out all the liquid from their carton before placing it in the recycling bin and to check the number on the bottom of their container to make sure it can be recycled.

Once the lunchroom madness ends, ZWS representatives tie up all of the bags and complete a waste audit to determine the schools diversion rate. (I was lucky to have experience with waste audits thanks to the awesome SUST 240 Waste class I took last semester at Roosevelt.) In our waste audits we both weigh the bags to determine the diversion rate as well as ensure that there isn’t contamination in the recycling and compost bags through sifting through and checking the bottom of the bags for liquid. The students typically do a great job of sorting their lunch leftovers, especially with the help of ZWS representatives and parent volunteers.

Lunchroom aftermath: the waste audit diversion
Pictured left to right: trash, compost, recycling
(Photo: B. Jerome, March 2018)

After the waste audit has been completed, ZWS representatives pack up their supplies and get to work on creating a summary of how much compost collection will be necessary for the school and how much trash service the school can cut down on. It is then up to the schools, either through parent volunteers or student monitoring, to ensure that the Zero Waste program is kept moving and grooving. The schools are encouraged to reach out to the program if they have any questions or concerns with the program and ZWS monitors their progress to ensure the program runs as smoothly as possible.

Working with the Zero Waste Schools program has taught me a lot, not only about how to properly recycle, but also about how excited students can be about the program. Seeing kids who are confident in their recycling skills and helping their friends to properly sort their trash is incredibly uplifting and shows how a little education and motivation can create a more sustainable future.

As the Zero Waste Schools program begins to expand, I think we will see a new generation of students with an even greater understanding and appreciation of the Earth they live on. And that makes all of the digging around in the trash more than worth it.

Bria Jerome is a senior in Roosevelt University’s College of Arts and Sciences, where she is double-majoring in Sustainability Studies and Political Science. Bria is reporting this spring 2019 semester on her sustainability internship at Seven Generations Ahead in Oak Park IL, and will be presenting on her experiences at RU’s annual SUST Student Symposium on 5/1 (4pm, WB 1214 at Roosevelt’s Chicago Campus).


This entry was posted in education, food, internships, recycling, Roosevelt, students, waste. Bookmark the permalink.