On Thursday, March 17th, Montera Middle School launched its food scrap diversion program. "We're trying to keep it green on St. Patrick's Day," explained leadership teacher Jeannie Kohl.
The Montera system features 4 waste stations in the cafeteria hosted by student monitors who help their peers sort their lunch waste into recyclables, compostables, and materials destined for the landfill.
A waste audit of the cafeteria garbage earlier this year inspired students to take action. "We found out that over 70% of what we were throwing in the trash could have been composted or recycled," explained one 7th grader.
Organizing food scrap diversion on the Montera campus provided many challenges. The school hosts nearly 1000 6th, 7th and 8th graders who eat lunch in two shifts. The campus is hilly, and the dumpsters are located far from the cafeteria. The campus also recently underwent a facilities modernization process that made bulldozers and construction crews a regular feature of the campus.
Undaunted by these challenges and buoyed by a strong degree of leadership, collaboration and enthusiasm, the Montera community worked together to design and implement the program.
"We worked with parent volunteers who had connections with Waste Management to help get the commercial compost pick ups in place," explained Ms. Kohl. "They also helped us get the bins in the cafeteria."
EarthTeam and the Alameda County Office of Education connected Montera to education and outreach materials used by other schools and helped provide feedback throughout the planning process.
Students at Montera designed outreach materials unique to their campus including posters, bulletin announcements, and powerpoint presentations in science classrooms throughout campus.
"We worked really hard to get the word out," said one student monitor. "We still have a ways to go until everybody remembers to do the right thing every time, but so far, I'd say this is a huge success."
Mr. Broach, the lead custodian at Montera notes, "At first I was a bit skeptical as they were planning this, but the program has been fantastic. The student monitors are the key to the system. I'd estimate we've been able to cut the amount of waste going to the garbage by over 50%. The lunch room is cleaner at the end of the day, too."
Each waste station at Montera is staffed by a student volunteer who teaches other students where to appropriately dispose of their waste. "The biggest obstacle is that people are in a hurry, so we do spend some time sorting out their mistakes –like plastic wrappers in the food scrap bin," explained one station monitor. When asked "Why volunteer for this work?" a station monitor responded, "I love nature and want to continue being human. We have to treat nature with respect if we want to survive."
"This is completely consistent with our vision of creating a safe, orderly, caring and nurturing environment for our students," explains principal Russom Mesfun. "We want to lead on this issue. We want to be a role model and train other schools how to do this." Mr. Mesfun emphasized the important role of student voice and leadership.
He has established a standing bi-weekly meeting with student leaders to gather input on improving the campus climate, culture and educational programming at Montera. "These kids get it," he explained, "We all have to do a better job giving them chances to lead."
Montera has also implemented systems to help reduce waste before it starts, including a service cart where students can pick up condiments and utensils if needed. "A lot of what we eat is finger food, so we don't really need the spork," noted an 8th grader. "It would be great if we could get rid of the plastic wrap too so that people could just get the spork, or just get the napkin, but they say it is for sanitation."
The program still faces a few hurdles, but all participants are engaged in reflecting on the program and ways to improve it. Kitchen staff say that they cannot indefinitely supply rubber gloves to the student monitors, and custodial staff are concerned that they are using more garbage bags at lunch to accommodate both garbage cans and food scrap carts.
Student bin monitors are already planning to develop a way for more students outside of the leadership class to monitor the bins to help avoid bin monitor burnout. Leadership students have already mapped out the outdoor areas of the campus where students sometimes eat and hope to design an outdoor food scrap diversion program as well.
Based on Montera's success to date, these hurdles will be only small obstacles to the development of a sustainable, successful program.