Wahconah High students break down environmental problem into digestible solutions

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DALTON — Milk cartons, plastic spoons, pizza crusts and fruit peels can pile up quickly in a school cafeteria, and amount to a lot of waste headed to the local landfill. Various studies indicate that Americans generate an average of 4.6 pounds of trash per day. But researchers have also found that, anywhere between 60 to 80 percent of that trash can be recycled or composted.

The issue has been weighing on the minds of some students at Wahconah Regional High School and has been talked about in for the past couple of years in April LeSage's environmental science class. But this past year, a team of students has taken this problem head on by organizing some custom solutions for their school.

Senior Hannah Perault paired her research on composting with classmate Gabby Orlando's experiment in taking a net-zero approach to reducing waste in her daily life, to help fellow senior, Danni Orlando, lead an effort to establish a composting and recycling program in the school's cafeteria.

"I was trying to look for how we could take a bigger problem and focus on creating a solution in the community and in our own school," Perault said about why she studied composting.

She had to look no farther than the big trash cans set up in the school lunchroom which served as a one-stop dumping spot for everything leftover from student and staff lunch bags and cafeteria trays. Despite having classroom-based recycling bins, nothing was set up in the cafeteria.

The students then researched how to make change and find a vendor to set up sorting bins and help haul away the separated food waste, while designing a streamlined process that would be student-friendly. This process proved challenging.

They found that while the local Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton does compost, food waste items like meat scraps would have to be separated — a challenge for a high volume of students on chicken patty or taco salad day. After several unanswered emails, the team finally heard back from a company called Natural Upcycling based in Linwood, N.Y., which works with cafeterias to supermarket chains like Wegmans. Natural Upcycling uses a specialized process to convert composting gases into renewable energy and fertilizers. It also provides special bins and even compostable bags for waste sorting and composting programs.

Next, the students had to bring their proposal to school administrators and also the custodians.

"The custodians are the ones who have to empty the bins, so we wanted to make sure this was something everyone was on board with," Danni said. "We were fortunate to have their support."

The plan was in place. Next came putting it all into motion.

The environmental science students and members of the school's Green Umbrella environmental club teamed up to create posters, video presentations and other materials to help to educate their classmates. Green Umbrella Club members spent the week before the December break visiting classrooms and educating the rest of their peers about the importance of composting and how to decide what materials can be composted and recycled versus what should go into the landfill bin.

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"As a group, they faced lots of hurdles and obstacles in getting this off the ground, but they just really stuck with it," said LeSage, who also serves as adviser to the Green Umbrella.

The Wahconah composting program officially began on Thursday, Jan. 17, and so far, it's working.

During a recent lunch period, students consciously took the time to sort trash from their lunch trays into their proper bins. A few even stopped to asked the Green Umbrella Club members what should go where.

"Thank you for taking the time to do that," LeSage called out to a student after she sorted her tray.

"I think this is a good real-world experience for us," Gabby said about the whole process, from planning to action. "A lot of kids see a problem like what's happening with the environment and ask, 'What can I do?' Here, students can acknowledge the fact that they're trying to stop [waste]."

Danni agreed and said, "It's good for people in school to understand how much they use and what waste they produce, so they can try and reduce it."

Grace Pugh worked as an assistant educator for Roots Rising, a local youth development program centered around agriculture and our food system. She heard about the Wahconah composting efforts through student Avery Price, a member of Green Umbrella, who also helped to lead education and awareness efforts at the school.

Pugh described the students' efforts as a laudable example of student-driven "community building and youth empowerment."

The students also hope word about their project spreads throughout their school district and into the community. Already, the Orlandos are working with the town of Hinsdale's public health department and local businesses to encourage a reduction in use of plastic bags and containers in the town. They also want to work with elementary schools.

"We want to cultivate a green climate with the younger kids," said Danni. "We want to get the younger grades and students involved now so that it becomes something that they're used to."

To learn more about the Green Umbrella team and other sustainable efforts at Wahconah, visit https://goo.gl/iTMBsQ or contact Honors Environmental Science teacher and Green Umbrella Adviser April Lesage at alesage@cbrsd.org.


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