Recycling Avengers…Coming Soon to a School Near You!

Last night our school held its annual back-to-school social. Our family is not is any way ready for school to resume, but we packed up and went. Ostensibly so that my son could meet his new teacher. But realistically because I had volunteered to manage the evening’s waste plan.

Cleaning up after back-to-school night.

When Soren was in kindergarten at a different school, I volunteered once every week or two to help the children sort their lunch waste as part of the school’s Green Team. It’s not a glamorous job. It involves way too much yogurt and even more inward cringing at the sheer volume of food that the children reject. But it is a needful job and one that I was happy to do. I am convinced that the younger you teach the children how to recycle and compost, the likelier it is to become a lifelong habit. And it is such an easy way to address scarcity of resources, reduce the greenhouse gases that are emitted by rotting food, create finished compost for soil enrichment, and simply to be mindful of where things come from and where they go.

When we changed schools last year, I was pretty sure that I would end up with a more glamorous volunteer position. Like Science Fair Coordinator. I imagined creating green science fair where the children could dream up new and exciting ways of collecting solar energy, engineering biodegradable everything, and designing zero emission cars.

One day, I still might do that.

But one week into the school year, I found myself grinding my teeth about the amount of waste our students were generating. The lunchroom sported 6 trash cans and one very underused recycling bin. It was heartbreaking, especially since we live in Seattle where commercial recycling and composting are easily available.

Being a can-do sort of person, I met with the necessary folks at the school district and at our school, recruited a team of parents willing to help, and set up a pretty kick-ass lunchroom compost and recycling program. It wasn’t without its hiccups, but by the end of the year things were going pretty strong.

Strong enough that I decided to tackle the amount of waste generated by school events, which several parents and I had become really sensitive too. If the students can be taught to recycle and compost, we thought, so can their parents!

It is striking how much easier it is to reach the children! The parents fall into three camps: those who are clearly already recycling and composting at home; those who aren’t and are embarrassed about it, which leads to behaviors like rapidly throwing everything into the trash without any eye contact; and those who half-know what to do but haven’t yet learned the subtleties, like removing the lids from their bottles before they recycle them.

Overall, the outreach went well last night, with most people willing to give it a try or ask for help. Many parents are grateful to have the option of composting and recycling at events. The kids take to it like fish to water. A very encouraging sign.

But then there is the hour of cleanup after the event, in which we scrape food from the mountains of plastic tubs and trays to prepare them for recycling, and dump gallons undrunk juice into the bushes so that we can recycle their containers.

And this is where I think to myself, “We have such a long way to go.” We need to make better use of our large drink dispensers so that parents aren’t bringing juice boxes and plastic drink bottles. We need to incentivize people to bring things in reusable packaging. We need to recondition ourselves, collectively, to think about the amount of waste we are generating in the name of “fun.”

Because I am all for fun! And I know that my comrades in compost and I would so much rather have fun socializing with other parents and meeting our children’s teachers than sorting waste.

So, here I go again into the fray. Armed with my city-issued guide to recycling and a fabulous team of parents who can’t stand unnecessary waste any more than I can. And this time we have a team of students who aren’t afraid to badger their parents into generationally appropriate behavior. Oh, those poor parents at our school don’t stand a chance!


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