No Waste Lunches: An Environmental Action Club Project
No Waste Lunches: An Environmental Action Club Project
by Geoffrey Selling, Germantown Friends School
As a science teacher, I have my program and curriculum pretty well mapped out. Though the program is far from rigid, I have a clear idea of how the year will unfold and what will happen. Not so for the major project of each year’s Fifth Grade Environmental Action Club (EAC). EAC is a voluntary after-school club of fifth and sometimes fourth graders, who spend an hour each week working on projects helpful to the environment.
The Club’s association with Earth Force, a youth environmental action and advocacy organization, demands that the students set the year’s goals, select the project(s), create the working plan and implement it (see article entitled EAC for more information about Earth Force in this publication). In the four years since the Club’s inception, I’ve learned to trust the enthusiasm and good sense of our fifth graders. I’ve learned not to worry that I can’t map out the year’s game plan or collect necessary resources in advance. I’ve learned that from the children’s creativity and focus, as well as from serendipitous encounters with colleagues and parents, things will somehow work out.
A pattern to the year’s doings has evolved. In the fall, the children spend part of their time surveying the campus and school community to determine problems. Simultaneously, they work in school flower beds, plant bulbs and maintain the Lower School Pond. In the winter, with their project in hand, they work to implement the plan. In the spring, they share their work at the Earth Force Youth Summit (held at the Zoo) and also continue with planting, pruning and other garden and pond jobs.
The 2008-09 school year was no exception. We walked the campus noticing litter, weeds and improperly recycled materials. We discussed pesticide use and the absence of many native plantings. We surveyed the storm water run-off situation. A parent came to talk to us about the plastic grocery bag problem. A teacher from Springside, a nearby independent school, came and described their No Waste Lunch program. No Waste Lunches are lunches in which all the wrapping and packaging is reusable and all the food is consumed with no wastes of any kind. By promoting green packaging and reusable utensils and containers, as well as filling lunch boxes with the type and quantity of food that students will realistically eat, a substantial amount of waste can be eliminated. This latter project immediately caught the group’s attention. Using a criterion referenced selection process rather than by voting, the students ended up choosing the No Waste Lunch focus.
In subsequent weeks, the students developed their own plan. There would be six or seven No Waste Lunches, all held on Wednesdays. This would ensure that a No Waste Lunch would occur on Earth Day. The six lunches would be spread from March to May. Club members would be assigned classrooms and it would be their job to make posters for their class, announce the No Waste Lunches and collect wastes for weighing from classes that ate in their rooms. An unannounced waste collection would give us baseline data. We’d then know how much waste the Lower School generated on a “regular” day. They also decided that there would have to be lunchroom monitors to remind students about where to put their trash. Finally, the students decided to put on an assembly about No Waste Lunches to educate the community BEFORE the first such lunch.
The students not only wanted to reduce the wastes in brought-from-home lunches, but also the amount of garbage and trash produced in our cafeteria. Children signed up to be monitors in the lunchroom and wore Earth Force T-shirts to identify themselves. A special trash can was designated as the lower school lunch trash and students were asked to throw any wastes into, so that the children could later weigh this trash bag. Other students took responsibility for the various classrooms where some classes eat. They provided special plastic bags to collect the wastes on No Waste Lunch days, and these were later brought to my science room for after-school weighing.
It was an ambitious plan. It had many components and many of them were thought through with parent helpers acting as supporters/advisers. I could only meet with one committee at a time.
From the start, it was clear that the students really understood the issues of lunch waste. Disposable bags, throwaway packaging and food and beverages that didn’t get eaten were being tossed away every day. Our unannounced collection and weighing revealed that about 45 lbs. of waste is produced in a Lower School lunch period. Over the week, this would come to more than 200 lbs. of lunch waste. Surely, this number could be brought down.
We signed up for an assembly period a mere five weeks into the future. Though I felt panicked at the thought, I asked the children to write skits that would describe the problem, the plan and how we hoped to implement it. Within two weeks, five skits were placed on my desk. Much to my surprise, the authors had typed them, cast them, and in several cases already assembled the props—all on their own time, in between EAC meetings. One skit was called “Greenology on an Airplane” and was a silly version of what might happen if the flight attendants refused to serve food to anyone who hadn’t brought reusable plates and cutlery. Another was a funny skit about a trash can complaining of being overloaded. These skits were definitely “fifth grade humor” but the added a bit of leaven to the more serious message the children prepared and narrated about the problems of waste in our society. For a few weeks, groups practiced with varying degrees of success.
Much to my amazement, in late February with only one rehearsal in the Poley Auditorium, the students put on a remarkable assembly that featured a Powerpoint presentation with student narrators, interspersed with five skits that were both educational and funny. The students even had a “how to” section in which they demonstrated the dos and don’ts of making lunches. They taught the lower school that a reusable lunch box, small colored reusable containers, and drink bottles can completely eliminate disposable packaging and bags. They also suggested that students give their parents a list of things they would and would not eat, so that less food would be wasted. Every one of the 26 EAC members participated in the process.
By the next morning, I knew that the idea of No Waste Lunches had taken. First graders were making their own posters about lunch wastes and were placing them in lockers in the hall. These posters were made at “choice” time and came spontaneously from the students. Teachers reported lively discussions over lunch periods about which classes had produced the least amount of waste and how products could be packaged in environmentally friendly ways.
Before the first lunch, EAC members visited their assigned classrooms and reminded their schoolmates. On the first such lunch, uniformed monitors worked the lunchroom reminding lower schoolers and faculty to put wastes in the designated container. Others visited their classrooms and collected wastes, delivering them to my room. By day’s end we had our results: the wastes from lunch had been reduced to 14 ½ lbs. This was duly announced in Meeting the next day.
Over the next few months, the project continued with variable success. The EAC members found that it was not only hard for the Lower School to remember when the lunches were to occur, but it was even hard for the organizers to remember to remind their classrooms and then go to collect wastes. After the first burst of energy, it was harder to sustain the focus. Yet I was surprised how determined many EAC members were. When I forgot to ask for lunchroom volunteers, students appeared in my room before lunch offering to monitor and wear those impressive Earth Force t-shirts--the monitors’ uniform. Many students wrote and read announcements in Meeting for Worship or Assembly, before or after the No Waste Lunches.
The actual lunch waste weights varied from our all-time best of 9.5 lbs. on Earth Day to a disappointing 21.5 lbs. in late May. But all of the weights were less than half of the control group standard of 45 lbs. Yet anecdotally, I couldn’t help but notice the large number of Lower School students who brought lunches in reusable boxes, full of small colored and reusable plastic containers (one for cherry tomatoes, another for chips, another for celery, another for grapes and a larger one with the sandwich). Many students brought thermoses or reusable drink bottles instead of those foil-based juice packs. The single largest waste item was unfinished drinks: milk, juice, etc. Best of all, I continued to hear students talking about how their lunches were packed and what wastes they were or were not producing. Many teachers brought dishes from home rather than use the cafeteria’s disposable utensils, plates and napkins. (One year later, many teachers still do this. GS).
By mid-May, I could tell that the EAC’s focus had moved on from the No Waste Lunches to the reinstallation of the pond (vandals had punctured the liner and the pond had to be redone!). But even with their interest waning as they approached graduation, these 26 fifth graders had really changed the behavior and practices of their schoolmates. They’d raised an important environmental issue and awakened families to better practices that had produced a significant result. They’d learned that by educating the community and providing structures and incentives to do better, many people responded positively. There were mistakes, moments of forgetting and occasional loss of focus, but in general, the project worked very well.
The EAC had learned the power of working in concert with others to improve the practices of others. They’d learned the importance of persistence and practiced speaking in front of others. They were on their way to becoming environmentally informed and effective citizens.
Because each year’s EAC designs its own project, there is not as much follow-up from year to year as I would like. There does continue to be an awareness of the lunch waste problem, but as we get further from the project described in this article, the urgency of participating recedes a bit, reminding us just how hard it is to change people’s behavior permanently. I take some comfort in knowing that these students are moving on with new ideas and fresh consciousness about environmental issues. Some were certainly were “changed” for good.
Finally, I would like to give credit to our friends at Earth Force who supported and encouraged this work. But an affiliation with Earth Force is NOT a required part of this project. The Springside School that inspired us was not connected to Earth Force. Their No Waste Lunch program was the brainchild of two passionate lower school science teachers.
This article is adapted from a previous publication in Studies in Education #98 Winter 2009-10.