When lunch is a slice of pizza and a carton of chocolate milk, sorting the trash is easy: pizza crust, milk carton and napkin in the green organics bin, Styrofoam tray in the trash. A brown bag lunch brought from home is more complex. “Could you please empty that?” I ask. Wordlessly, the student shakes baggies, a granola bar wrapper and an empty chip bag into the red trash bin. She looks at me, holding up the paper bag. “Organics,” I say, pointing to the green bin. “Food and paper go in here to make compost.”
It has been seven weeks since school started on September 1 and I’m standing at my daily station behind a pair of colored Brute trash bins. The smell of fresh pizza wafts from the kitchen area. I don a green latex glove on my left hand and keep a pleasant expression on my face as hundreds of Southwest High students stream into the lunchroom just moments after the 11:25 a.m. bell. The long line diminishes rapidly as students file through the cafeteria and head to tables. The din of voices subsides a little. My job here is to make certain each student properly sorts his or her lunch waste into the two bins: food, milk cartons and other paper waste in the green bin; plastic containers and utensils, foil wrappers and bags, and Styrofoam trays in the red bin.
Southwest is currently the only public high school in Minneapolis participating in the District’s green initiative to reduce trash by separating organic material and sending it to a commercial composting facility. Some twenty other Minneapolis public schools, most of them elementary or K-8, are also piloting the program this fall. A Hennepin County grant provided start-up funding, and Meredith Fox, the sustainability director for the District, offers ongoing support. Parents and staff, however, are the ground troops making this organics recycling program happen. Every school day, I show up with a second parent – one of a team of dedicated volunteers – to cover the two lunch shifts.
Ultimately, the goal is for all Southwest students to willingly and accurately sort their garbage without the benefit of a monitor. We’re working on poster board signs explaining what goes where. We’re planning a strategy for engaging teams of students to assume the job of overseeing the bins. At this point, however, it’s worth my time to personally ensure that our organic collection is “clean” or uncontaminated by materials – such as plastic or foil – that won’t ever decompose. If a bag of organics is overly contaminated, it will be rejected by the composting facility, the hauler will be fined and we will jeopardize the program.
Like relaxed hawks, my fellow parent volunteer and I observe the students as they approach the bins, teaching them what goes where and trying to slip in some added education when we can. “If it rots, it goes in green,” Jim announces. “This will get turned into dirt. Less waste going to the incinerator.”
Ultimately, what I want the students to grasp is the fact that turning waste into dirt lessens not only the vast quantities of trash being burned or land-filled but also the significant greenhouse gas emissions produced by the waste industry. According to a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, minimizing our waste through stringent measures like source reduction, recycling and composting could have the same impact on climate change as shutting down a fifth of all U.S. coal-fired plants.
So we sort, lunch by lunch. We’re capturing a fraction of the organic waste produced each day by the 1,700-some students at Southwest. A third of the student body eats in the lunchroom; the rest eat in the hallways or off-campus. We collect about 60 pounds of organics per lunch period. When you do the math, this adds up to well over a ton of organics per month. This probably represents less than half of the organic material discarded throughout the school. Still, it’s a good start.
There are other perks to this gig besides getting to wear a green latex glove and fish burger wrappers and plastic forks from the organics and apples and sandwiches from the trash. I’m getting to know the assistant principals who oversee the lunchroom, as well as the custodial staff who empty the trash, swab the tables and sweep the floor after each lunch shift. The best part of the experience is that it has banished any misconceptions I once held about students in an urban public high school. Prior to September, my contact with these students was limited to my sons’ small circles of friends, and I harbored a vague fear of the student body en masse. Now they’ve become familiar. Sheepishly, I realize that all of the students at Southwest are my sons’ peers. They are for the most part polite, respectful and trying to do the right thing. As am I by them.
Sarah Sponheim lives with her family in East Calhoun; her two older boys attend Southwest High School.