When Holmes Elementary School in Oak Park kicked off its no-waste lunch program, the kids were so excited, it ended up being the biggest hot lunch day of the year. The lunch program was part of the Zero Waste Initiative the school undertook in 2008, which included replacing Styrofoam serving containers at lunch with reusable items and planting a school vegetable garden.
"The kids took to the changes like ducks to water," says Julie Ledogar, a Holmes parent who helped with the project.
The school was guided in its efforts by Seven Generations Ahead, a local organization that works with schools to create zero-waste programs. Seven Generations worked with Holmes on waste assessments, developing plans to move toward zero waste and helping with grant proposals to get the program under way, says Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations Ahead. (The Illinois Zero Waste school grants help buy composters, industrial dishwashers, reusable cafeteria wear, hand dryers for bathrooms and recycling bins.)
"Paper is one of the biggest areas of waste and we're trying to increase recycling within the schools," Cuneen says, "and then reducing the use of paper through a double-sided copy policy and replacing paper towels in the bathroom with electric hand dryers."
Another big source of waste, probably 25-35 percent for schools, is food scraps, Cuneen says. Schools that have begun recycling their food scraps have separate bins for food and liquid waste, which are separated from regular garbage. The material is then transported to composters or worm bins on school grounds.
Not only are schools like Holmes reducing the amount of garbage hauled to Dumpsters, they're also saving money on things like disposable lunch trays, plastic silverware or paper towels, Cuneen says. Plus, the program lets kids learn to look at materials not as waste but as resources that can be reused and reintegrated.
"Obviously the biggest benefit is that our students have all become ambassadors of the earth and are sharing what they learned at home," Ledogar says. "And we're sending significantly less to the landfill."
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
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