Encouraging Zero Waste Through Primary and Elementary Education

 Courtesy Natalie Northrup

Courtesy Natalie Northrup

Eco-Geeks Environmental Education Club: 
Encouraging zero-waste through primary and elementary education

In the Honeoye Falls-Lima School District, there is an exciting new initiative, pioneered by a group of high school students called the Eco-Geeks. This group is encouraging zero-waste through classroom lessons and compost collection. I (Natalie Northrup) introduced this movement summer of 2017, after coming-to-face with the mass amount of people that do not recognize the importance of zero-waste. In my high school, many opportunities are available for students to practice zero-waste.  The lunchrooms have compost bins, plastic recycling receptacles, and containers for plastic bag recycling. These opportunities are incredible, but are, more often than not, ignored by the students at the school.
 

Through working fervently to encourage the utilization of these bins, the Green Team discovered that a large group of the students at the high school refused to utilize the compost bins because it ‘takes too much effort’, ‘slipped my mind’ or ‘really isn’t that big of a deal’. Through exposure to this ignorance, my eyes were opened to the necessary venue for change, education. Eco-Cycle, a program in Boulder, Colorado affirms the importance of education in zero waste efforts, stating “No matter what project your school is focusing on, it’s important to include education. Focus completely on operations and your project will fail”(1). The Honeoye Falls-Lima district, until the formation of the Eco-Geeks, had only the operations for a zero-waste environment, the education was missing.
 

From the revelation that came to me after years in our high school cafeteria, the Eco-Geeks Environmental Education Club took off in my mind. Since then, the group of around 20 peers and I have commenced education of primary and elementary students: informing them of the imperative of environmental consciousness. As Zero Waste Europe is practicing in their efforts to engage the community in adoption of sustainable practices (2), getting a participatory group requires education.

 Courtesy Natalie Northrup

Courtesy Natalie Northrup

As we began our work, we chose Kindergarten through 5th grade students as our subjects because of their openness to involvement. The kids we are working with have actively expressed interest in sorting wastes, composting, and leading their peers to sustainable practices. Through assemblies and classroom lessons we have seen this first-hand. The students we have worked with leave assemblies excited to compost during their lunches, help guide during lunches as “Junior” Eco-Geeks, and share with their parents the importance of zero-waste.
 

Education is fundamental to the development of values, and the development of values at a young age is critical for the establishment of life-long habits. Through teaching these students and providing them a platform to practice the lessons we are preaching; the effectiveness of the zero-waste push has multiplied.

 
 Courtesy Natalie Northrup

Courtesy Natalie Northrup

Through my experience with this movement and research on the topic, I have come to understand some critical steps for a successful program:

1.  Kick off strong with administrative collaboration, lessons, and activities for the students (or whatever population you are converting to zero-waste), and a waste audit to determine the potential for growth.
 

2.  Work with the supportive groups, like a compost collection committee, lunchroom monitors, students/employees who can encourage peers to utilize the specified receptacles, and facility staff to ensure a maintainability and success of the effort.


3.  Effectively communicate the opportunity to the people it will affect and encourage them to participate through education and interactive commencement events.
 

4. Continue education on the subject of zero-waste, be it through flyers, assemblies, zero-waste events, and presence in the lunchroom or breakroom (1).

 

Through education, the prosperity of any zero-waste movement is heightened.

  • The Scottish environmental agency warned businesses that waste is now a bigger threat to the environment than pollution (3). This is huge; the imperative of a zero-waste push is heightened when exposed to that piece of information. As more information is made available to the public, more people will see that waste reduction is a necessity in our society.
     
  • Of the waste that is produced by humans, the two biggest percentages are paper and food (4). These wastes need to be sorted. Although it is easy ignore these statistics when the effects are not always obvious, it is important to make sure these wastes are reused and recycled.
     
  • "The average household in the UK produces more than a tonne of waste every year. Put together, this comes to a total of 31 million tonnes per year, equivalent to the weight of three and a half million double-decker buses, a queue of which would go around the world two and a half times" (5). 
     
  • The single use plastic bags that are so frequently used to carry groceries and other consumer goods take 100 years to decompose. People often double bag, and don’t recycle, even though stores are required to take back bags for recycling (5). This creates an immense amount of waste, all of which could be diverted with the use of non-plastic reusable bags, or the implementation of a prevalent plastic bag recycling infrastructure.
 Courtesy Natalie Northrup

Courtesy Natalie Northrup

Information like this can easily be shared; providing powerful educational content to people unaware of the negative impact of waste on the environment. By educating students, peers, politicians, and professionals about the need for waste reduction to sustain our society, we can successfully implement zero waste programs across all sectors and communities.

 

- Natalie Northrup, Student at Honeoye-Falls Lima High School


Sources:

1Schumpert, Kary, and Cyndra Dietz. “Zero Waste : A Realistic Sustainability Program for Schools.” Reusables Rule at our School, Eco-Cycle, www.ecocycle.org/files/Zero%20Waste%20A%20Realistic%20Approach%20Sustainability%20Program%20for%20Schools.pdf.

2“Zero Waste? – Zero Waste Europe.” Zero Waste Europe, Zero Waste Europe, 2017, zerowasteeurope.eu/about/principles-zw-europe/.

3Carrell, Severin. “Waste of resources is biggest threat to planet, warns Scottish environment agency.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Aug. 2016, www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/08/waste-of-resources-is-biggest-threat-to-planet-warns-scottish-environment-agency.

4“Municipal Solid Waste.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 29 Mar. 2016, archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/web/html/.

5“20 Facts about Waste and Recycling.” Recycling Activity Pack v2, C B Environmental Ltd, www.cbenvironmental.co.uk/docs/Recycling%20Activity%20Pack%20v2%20.pdf