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Castlemont Launches Cafeteria Waste Diversion

Interns monitor waste stations at CastlemontInterns monitor waste stations at CastlemontWith support from EarthTeam, students in Castlemont High School's Sustainable Urban Design Academy (SUDA) Works program designed and launched a cafeteria waste diversion program in the first week of November, 2013. SUDA Works employs students in paid internships focused on green job skills and career awareness.

The effort, led by five seniors, builds on prior work at Castlemont examining food systems and best practices in waste reduction. Students conducted a waste audit which revealed that 75% of the material in the cafeteria trash could be composted or recycled. Using that data, the seniors developed a plan to set up monitored waste stations in the cafeteria for capturing food scraps and recyclable material.

The system features bins for food scraps and food soiled paper, recycling, and trash. Each lunch period, two of the interns monitor the stations to help educate their peers about the proper sorting and disposal of lunch waste.

Maggie Vega praises her peers' effortsMaggie Vega praises her peers' efforts"We've found that a positive, encouraging message works best," explains intern Maggie Vega. "Nobody wants to hear that they are doing something wrong, so we cheer on their efforts while also helping them sort the materials correctly."

Juan Quintero says he's motivated to help the environment and thinks this is a great system. "We don't sort the waste for them, we want them to learn how to do it on their own, so we point to the different bins and explain where stuff goes."

The group spent about two weeks working with EarthTeam and school staff to gather supplies and plan for a phased roll-out of the system focusing on a different material each day of the first week:

  • Monday: Trays and Paper plates
  • Tuesday: Cups and Napkins
  • Wednesday: Food wrappers (landfill)
  • Thursday:  Plastic Utilities(do NOT drop in compost on accident)
  • Friday: Food Scraps

They discovered, however, that most of their peers on the 500 student campus were actually eager to correctly sort all materials from the first day, so they focused on fine tuning the system. Quintero explains that they moved the stations away from the exit of the cafeteria because its proximity to the salad bar contributed to crowds and stress.

Vega has been encouraged by the early success of the program. "When I first got here 4 years ago, people didn't care- they didn't treat it like home. This helps keep the campus clean and reminds everybody they have a responsibility to make this a place they want to be."

Intern Leah Silva sees far reaching benefits to the campus system. In addition to the environmental savings on campus, Silva explains, "I've been working with my family on this, too now. We're recycling and starting to work on food scraps." Silva, a senior who hopes to study veterinary medicine in college, sees connections between her environmental efforts and her career goals. "This all connects," she explains, "these wrappers can harm animals if we don't take care of them properly."

Properly sorted food scrapsProperly sorted food scrapsOnly a small amount of trash remains at the end of lunchOnly a small amount of trash remains at the end of lunch

By the end of lunch on Friday at the end of the first week, the new system seemed to be working well. A quick glance at the bins revealed almost no cross-contamination of trash in the recycling or compost bins. Similarly, nearly zero compostable or recyclable materials were in the trash at the end of lunch- the only exception being plastic bags with trace amounts of tortilla chip crumbs which the station monitors dutifully collected and emptied into the compost.

The school's lunchtime custodian, Lincoln Lendberg, is encouraged by the student's efforts, " I think this can happen and it's worth it." Adding that he noticed the cafeteria is cleaner at the end of lunch as students are taking more responsibility for clearing their tables.

Leah, Maggie and Juan take pride in their workLeah, Maggie and Juan take pride in their work

The diversion stations build on prior work that examined the waste stream on campus resulting in system-wide changes. With the help of Nancy Deming from Oakland Unified School District, the school eliminated plastic wrapped "spork packets" in favor of utensil dispensers which allow students to take only what they need. The school also installed water jugs and provides paper cups to eliminate prior reliance on plastic water bottles.