Half-eaten sandwiches, orange rinds, straws, empty yogurt cups, apple cores, baggies, plastic spoons — the stuff of school lunches, or at least the remains of them. And for many years, all of it ended up lumped together in garbage cans destined for the landfill.
Davis students have been separating the plastic and paper from everything else for quite a while now. And last year, students at César Chávez Elementary School went even further, reducing the total daily lunchtime garbage produced by the district’s largest elementary school to half of a single garbage can. Everything else — the food scraps, paper, napkins, milk and juice cartons and plastic containers — ended up recycled or composted.
With a row of small garbage cans lined up not far from the lunch tables — each can labeled in both English and Spanish as well as with pictures of what belongs in each — students sorted their leftover food in one, milk and juice cartons in another, plastic in a third and all unrecycled plastic and containers in a fourth. Cardboard lunch trays were neatly piled at the end for paper recycling.
The ALL Compost pilot program enabled the school to reduce their garbage pickup from two large bins emptied three times a week to one large bin emptied twice a week, saving hundreds of dollars every month.
Overseen by the school district’s DavisRISE coordinator Ximena Jackson, the pilot project at Chávez was supposed to last just five weeks last year. But so successful was ALL Compost at reducing the amount of garbage produced, the program ended up continuing all year. And beginning on the first day of school this year, the program expanded to all Davis elementary schools.
Jackson, who also serves as library technician at Chávez, was joined by Davis Farm to School’s Dorothy Peterson in training all of the schools’ custodians in the ALL Compost process before school started. Farm to School created the DavisRISE program — which stands for Recycling is Simply Elementary — and it has since become a school district program. Other major partners include Davis Waste Removal and the city of Davis.
Jackson herself has been making the rounds of school sites, helping solve problems that have cropped up and tailoring the program to each school site. If all schools succeed at reducing their garbage collection like Chávez did, the school district will save thousands of dollars, Jackson said.
Not only that, they will have the satisfaction of knowing they are sending far less to the landfill, and far more to compost, she noted.
Of course, success will be measured differently at each school. While Chávez has the most students in the district, the school wouldn’t necessarily produce the most garbage. Title I schools that serve breakfast, for example, will produce more garbage, as will schools that serve more free- and reduced-price lunches that contain multiple individually packaged items.
During lunch one day at Chávez last week, Jackson supervised as students separated their waste. Some were little pros, quickly tossing plastic spoons and straws in one bin, leftover food in another, milk cartons in a third before racing off to play. Others moved more slowly, carefully studying the pictures on the cans first to make sure everything ended up where it was supposed to. Jackson, meanwhile, or one of her student volunteers, stood ready with the garbage claw to pull out anything that ended up in the wrong place.
They’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly, Jackson said. But every year means starting over again, with a new batch of first-graders to train, and the older students out of practice.
“They get to sixth grade and forget everything,” she laughed.
Still, they did so well at Chávez last year they were rewarded for their efforts with a Radio Disney performance at school. This year, all of the elementary schools will be competing for a reward — a special nature assembly for the school that reduces the most by December, and possibly another Radio Disney assembly up for grabs at the end of the year.
Jackson said she’s confident all of the schools will be as successful as Chávez. All it takes, she said, is good teamwork among the custodial staff, lunchtime supervisors, school administration and, of course, the students.
But there’s only so much that team can do. The unrecyclable waste that children bring from home — from the sandwich baggies to the empty packages of Pirate’s Booty or cheese crackers — still ends up in the landfill.
Last year, Jackson said, as part of a project with Chávez science teachers, students counted all those unrecyclable bags. Then fourth-graders wrote letters to parents asking them to use reusable containers instead.
“We saw a difference, but then you have to start all over again each year,” Jackson said.
Learn more about DavisRISE and Farm to School by visiting http://www.davisfarmtoschool.org. To volunteer for the ALL Compost program, contact Ximena Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy