French Road Elementary's Path to Zero Waste
Smiles that never end. Gloved hands digging through pounds of discarded food and feet of recyclable materials.
Students beaming as they ask to help their fellow classmates and make sure everything goes in the correct bin. Kids asking “where does this go” when they’re confused. “Everything in its right place” – says a 3rd grader. “Making people think about what they’re doing” – says a 5th grader. This is what the beginning of zero waste looks like in an elementary school.
The path to zero waste at French Road Elementary School currently means changes in the cafeteria. Since this past September, a zero waste station, complete with different bins for drink cartons, compost, recycling, landfill, bottles, and liquids, has been set up. The students must separate their waste and a culture shift has already been noticed in favor of social responsibility. One lunch monitor mentioned they noticed a change in the culture and added, “it’s clear the kids want to do the right thing.” I’ve only been there for about a month and a half, but I’ve noticed the same. Some kids are simply willing to do the right thing, but most of them want to do everything right and put things in the right place.
It is more than a lunch time activity and it’s not a fad.
The first attempts at becoming zero waste have given these students a new way of looking at the things they throw out. They understand that everything they use winds up somewhere and that ‘somewhere’ can be as something useful or as something taking up space. Students at French Road Elementary School are in it to win it and not just for the competition they are currently in against the local middle school, Twelve Corners. These kids are passionate about making changes at the school and in their daily lives.
As we’ve been competing with Twelve Corners, zero waste has introduced itself in a new way to the kids who were previously not as actively involved as others. Suddenly, they want to do better and ask more questions about how they can do better. They are currently most interested in our trash mascot, Larry. He’s been with us for a couple weeks and recently got a makeover from Kevin, a maintenance man at the school. This is what zero waste looks like in FRES. Kids are excited about a mascot that fights trash and is going to help us win a competition over landfill diversion rates. Even the staff is involving themselves as far as spending a couple hours giving a cardboard mascot an entire makeover. I have a mix of students and staff asking me every day who is winning in the competition and asking how they can do better. While everyone is currently riding the high of this competition, their care and concern goes far beyond it.
Since starting in January, I have had over 80 volunteers want to help me check the bins and help their fellow classmates learn how to sort their lunch waste. The goal is to eventually have all of the kids hold themselves and each other accountable to continue to grow a culture of socially responsible children. Beyond supporting children in an environment where they think about their actions as they apply to their waste, these kids are learning that everything they do has a consequence. This brings the philosophy of zero waste full circle. We strive to think about the entire cycle of our actions, rather than simply the next step. So, we begin to not buy things we don’t need, and we pack things sustainably, we reuse, and we upcycle.
Zero waste in elementary schools are about teaching kids about how circular all of life is and how we should reflect that cycle in what we do. If someone commits an act of kindness towards us, we should pass it on. If you buy something that is meant to be used once, find a new way to use it. Before you buy something or before you take a certain action, think about the immediate consequence that action has. Then think about what comes after that. Zero waste in elementary schools is about more than putting everything in the right bin. It is about the students who want to learn, and it is about the adults who want to change their ways and support these students’ growth.
It’s about everyone wanting to be better and that’s a pretty beautiful thing.
- Annabel Sammons, Impact Earth Zero Waste Elementary Educator