Colorado Kids Push For Zero-Waste Schools

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If asked what the average 13 year old cares about, you probably wouldn’t put “composting” at the top of the list. Yet graduates of Boulder, Colo.’s Green Star Schools know more about waste reduction than the average tween.

A group of Colorado students listen intently to a presentation on sorting recyclable and compostable materials. Photo: Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools Program

Thanks to an innovative partnership with local nonprofit Eco-cycle, 22 Boulder elementary schools have moved beyond recycling to set their sights on zero waste. Graduates of these innovative schools expect their middle schools to have the same zero-waste goals – and have been putting pressure on middle school administrators to up waste reduction efforts.

Middle school principals first inquired about becoming a Green Star School after receiving pressure from the students. “That’s when I knew the program had been a success,” says Cyndra Dietz, Direct of Eco-Cycle’s School Recycling and Environmental Education Program.

The Green Star Schools program is the only one of its kind in the county. While many schools and school districts have recycling programs, Eco-cycle helps its Green Star Schools address every aspect of a their waste stream, from office paper, to food waste, to paper towels.

Thanks to Eco-cycle’s holistic approach, participating schools have managed to cut their waste by up to two-thirds.

Eco-cycle has a long history of working with district schools to boost recycling efforts and environmental education. Yet the Green Star Program goes a step further, by aiming for zero waste. In a true zero-waste model, nothing gets sent to landfill; everything is either recycled, reused or composted.

“I can guarantee you there are not many kids in America doing as much landfill diversion as our school kids are, and that is a little flame of hope for the future,” Eco-Cyle Executive Director Chris Lombardi told the Boulder Daily Camera in October. “[It’s] one of the most important programs Eco-Cycle has ever created.”

A local effort makes history

Founded in the 1970s by a group of eager volunteers, Eco-cycle brought curbside recycling to Boulder in 1976, making Boulder one of the first 20 communities in the United States to offer the service. Since then, Eco-cycle has become the nation’s largest nonprofit recycler and has developed a whole host of recycling programs and educational initiatives, reaching residents, businesses and schools in the Boulder area.

A group of students empty bins into recycling at their school. Photo: Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools Program

Eco-cycle has conducted the Boulder/Broomfield Country School Recycling and Environmental Education Program since 1987, offering schools both recycling services and educational content. Currently, the program reaches all 82 Boulder Valley and Saint Vrain Valley Public schools. It has managed to cut some schools’ trash service by up to 75 percent.

Additionally, Green Star Schools cut their waste stream by addressing organic and compostable waste. When the lunch bell rings at a Green Star School, kids don’t just dump disposable trays full of food scraps in the trash.

They scrape leftovers into a compost bin, recycle milk and juice bottles, and place the reusable plates, bowls and cutlery provided by the school into hot soapy water for cleaning. Compost bins are also provided in bathrooms, to help reduce paper towel waste.

A local, large-scale composting facility hauls and processes the organic waste. In the spring, the facility rewards schools with free compost that can be used to landscape school grounds and vegetable gardens. Students can also take this compost home for use in their own backyards.

Green Star Schools also undergo waste audits, throw zero-waste school events and host yearly worm bin composting seminars open to the community. Field trips and presentations get kids thinking critically about environmental issues.

Part of the Green Star Schools Progam is pushing waste-free lunches. Photo: Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools Program

To smooth the transition to zero waste, Eco-cycle maintains a strong presence in participating schools for the first two years of the program. Just telling kids to separate their trash isn’t enough; compost or recyclables that are contaminated will render a whole bin useless. Education and behavioral change are critical, for teachers, custodians, administrators and students alike.

Eco-cycle offers all these services for free. The partnership with local public schools is made possible through grants, with some help from the district. Savings from reducing the trash haul offset the costs of hauling compost, and Eco-cycle covers the difference.

Green Star Schools has proved incredibly popular. It has recently been extended to two middle schools and plans to expand to high schools in the future.

A full quarter of the Boulder Valley School District – about 9,000 pupils – are now enrolled in a Green Star School, with three or four schools added each year. Competition to get into the program is so intense that eighteen schools are currently languishing on the waitlist.

“The students are thrilled to be a part of this,” Boulder Valley’s Sustainability Coordinator Ghita Carroll told the Daily Camera. “It’s just amazing what they know about composting and waste reduction at such a young age.”

How any school can go zero waste

Not every community has access to the expertise of a local nonprofit like Eco-cycle. Yet Dietz urges other schools and administrators to take whatever steps they can to reduce their environmental impact.

“Every school or district is at a different waste reduction level,” Dietz says. “Everyone has to start where they are.” Whether that means purchasing more recycle containers, working with the trash company or getting durable serviceware for your school cafeteria, you can begin to make a difference. If schools simply can’t recycle, Dietz recommends that they focus on waste reduction first.

The Boulder/Broomfield County School Recycling and Environmental Education Program has already made a big impact on local kids, and the Green Star program takes that impact a step further. By pioneering zero waste in schools, participants are showing peer institutions the way forward and teaching a whole generation of Boulder residents how to tread a little more lightly on the Earth.

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  • http://newgrass.com NewGrass

    Great story on our future generation, thank you!

  • http://www.fost-nepal.org Sanu Kaji Shrestha

    Thanks Sophie for featuring this article which really encourages to other kids and educates the parents. We have also a similar story if you are interested to hear from Nepal, please email me.

  • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke

    Great story! Congats to the schools and to Eco-Cycle. I know Cyndra has worked on this program for many years, so it’s great to read about the success. These kids will shape the future, so it’s the right move to make them environmentally-smart.

  • Marla

    I am sharing this article with my granddaughter. She is in middle school and interested in protecting the environment.