Young Ecoheroes Battle Waste in Their School's Cafeteria

kids standing in line photo

Photo credit: Vassilis Online/Creative Commons
This guest post was written by Smith Raynor, a teacher at Hunter Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Stay in line. Hands to yourself. No talking. Eyes on your own work. These are the messages that our children hear every day in every school in the country. Necessary messages, for sure...but hardly ones that empower children to create change.

Find Out More About the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge!

But The Hunter Ecoheroes, a group of kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade students at Hunter Elementary in Raleigh, NC, learned that they can make a difference when they participated in the Sieman's Change the World Challenge.

The team was formed by asking each kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade teacher for a recommendation of a student who was interested in science and was excited about learning. The kids met for an hour before school started each Friday. Not only did the parents get the team members to school early, they took turns providing breakfast!

We searched around the school for some area that all the kids had in common. That was the cafeteria. We learned from our cafeteria manager that the dumpster outside of the cafeteria was emptied every 2-3 days. Quite quickly, our focus became waste reduction.

The first question that the kids grappled with was: How will we know if we are successful in reducing waste? The role of data became clear—even to 5, 6 and 7 year olds. Their age was probably a benefit when it came to collecting data. For them, it was fun to count bags of trash!

We also made lists of the things that the other students threw away. The industrial brown paper towels and wax-coated milk cartons are not recyclable. Food waste costs the school system to haul away for composting. Our target became the plastic bottles that so many kids were throwing away. We made recycling containers, arranged for them to be periodically emptied, made posters, made announcements on the school's morning announcements and challenged each of the classes to reduce, reuse and recycle.

By the end of the year, we had reduced the waste from the cafeteria—a little bit. More important was the ripple effect. Many of the families either began or increased their recycling efforts. Most of the team began packing lunches that were sustainable—cloth napkins, reusable sandwich containers, water bottles. The other kids noticed, thought it was cool and began emulating them. Parents shared that they began to make more informed decisions at the grocery store.

A year later...we are still recycling. Lunches are still fairly sustainable. And, a visit from Animal Planet increased the "cool" factor to unimagined levels. If an inner-city, public school can accomplish this, so can you!

Now, my team is clamoring for a school-wide worm composting bin. We'll see...

Sign Up for This Year's Siemens Challenge Today
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Read more about the Siemens Challenge:
TreeHugger: Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge
Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge Kicks Off at United Nations International Youth Day

Young Ecoheroes Battle Waste in Their School's Cafeteria
Stay in line. Hands to yourself. No talking. Eyes on your own work. These are the messages

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