Film by Muddy Brook kindergarten teacher shines light on waste problem

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A short film about how Berkshire Hills Regional School District deals with cafeteria waste hasn't been seen by the public yet, but it's already generating a lot of talk.

"We're opening the conversation," said Jack Curletti, a kindergarten teacher at Muddy Brook Elementary School and one of the main forces behind the film's creation.

The three-minute film, which will premiere with a subsequent community conversation at 7 p.m. Friday in Fuel Coffee Shop, shows how the school's current approach to food service is generating waste. The school uses disposable trays, flatware and cups for food services instead of reusable, washable plastic and metal tableware.

Curletti and Molly de St. Andre, a teacher for the deaf at the district, worked with local filmmaker Sam Handel to document what 18 days of that disposable tableware trash looked like for Curletti's kindergarten class.

The video is titled "Where is This All Going?" a reference, Curletti said, to both the waste and the community response.

"The title is asking where the trash is going and it's asking the community: 'What is the endgame,' " he said. "I think there are better options."

Waste in the school is indicative of a broader societal issue, Curletti said. He said the film was meant to address more than the waste at Muddy Brook or the district as a whole: It's the culture in the community and in the world that leads to throwing out so much.

"I think it's our disposable lifestyle," Curletti said. "It's out of sight, out of mind. And we're all throwing out a lot that could be reused."

Curletti and his class multiplied the amount of waste from the 18 days they collected by 10 to reflect the 181 days of a normal school year, and then multiplied that number by the 21 classrooms in the school. The amount of trash generated by the small school's dining services was larger than they had thought.

"The numbers are shocking," de St. Andre wrote in an email. "We throw away enough silverware that if stacked end to end, from the ground up, would measure 33,000 feet — the cruising altitude of an airplane. We throw away enough lidded cups that if you stacked them on top of each other, you would have a tower nine times the height of the empire state building. And our milk cartons, lying side by side, would cover an entire football field."

Superintendent Peter Dillon echoed that hope for a workable solution. He told The Eagle that while he had not seen the film, he was familiar with the issue.

"The history of this predates me," Dillon said. "I've been here for eight years and as far as I understand it the decision to use disposable tableware was made 12 years ago in the midst of budget cuts."

Dillon said those budget cuts affected staffing in the school kitchens. He described the current kitchen staffing across all three schools — Muddy Brook, Monument Valley Middle School, and Monument Mountain Regional High School — as a "skeleton crew."

The staffing reductions made it more difficult to clean stainless steel cutlery, Dillon said, so the decision was made to move to disposable tableware to save money.

When asked why the kitchen staffs have seen such drastic cuts, Dillon replied that ongoing budget cuts forced the administration to make hard choices.

"When we have to make cuts, we try to keep them as far away from the classroom as possible," Dillon said.

Muddy Brook Principal Mary Berle told The Eagle that she sympathizes with the difficult of the budget process. But, she said, disposable tableware in the cafeterias is a symptom of the problems that can come from making difficult financial decisions.

"It's a short-term solution to a budget problem that has long-term ramifications," she said.

Those ramifications are the reason that Curletti was spurred to act, he said. He remembered the beginning of the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" movement when he was in school and said he hopes that this project can inspire a similar love of the environment and the planet for his students that that slogan did for him.

"We need to recognize the problem and find alternative ways to deal with it," he said.

If you go ...

What: "Where is This All Going?" a short film and community discussion on waste at Muddy Brook Elementary School

Where: Fuel Coffee Shop, 293 Main St., Great Barrington

When: 7 p.m. Friday


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