Reduce, reuse, recycle: Litter-free lunches at Willard

Lunch at an elementary school usually looks like organized chaos. 

Students emerge from the lunch lines, grab a carton of milk and make a beeline for their tables, where their classmates who brought lunch from home are already swapping snacks. After scarfing down a sandwich, a slice or some celery sticks, the students toss their trash, zip up their bags and rush outside for a short recess.

After all, they only have 15 minutes.

Things were a little different this week at Willard Elementary School, where badge-wearing students policed the garbage, directing their classmates toward barrels and bins with labels like, “Trash,” “Compost” and “Recycling.”

“We’re telling people not to just throw their trash away, but to separate out all the compost and recylables,” said Jackson Moore, a third-grader and member of the student-led Earth Care Club, which launched Litter-Free Lunch Week at Willard from March 9 to 13.

Unfinished French toast sticks and special starch straws went in the barrel containing solid compostable scraps. Small plastic syrup cups were tossed into one recycling bin, while emptied milk cartons and napkins piled up in another. There was another bucket designated for leftover liquids. 

Styrofoam soup bowls, sandwich bags and snack wrappers the students brought in lunches packed at home were just about the only things actually thrown in the garbage. And even those items where scarce, as many students brought their lunches in reusable containers.

“It’s definitely helping reduce the amount of trash we have,” said Cooper Ernst, a fourth-grader. “I’m always getting reminded that we can make a huge difference just by doing a little.”

On an average day, lunch periods generate slightly less than two barrels of garbage. The total accumulation on Monday, the first day of litter-free lunches, was about one half-barrel. Tuesday’s total appeared to be even less than that.

Verrill Farm has agreed to collect the compost at week’s end, according to Michelle Ernst, parent coordinator for the Earth Care Club. “We couldn’t do this without them,” she said.

Ernst said ideally litter-free lunches would become the norm as Willard transitions into its new, and significantly greener, building next year. “We’re managing the totals to make decisions about what we can do at the new school,” she said.

Willard held a litter-free lunch two years ago, and the realization that the bulk of lunchtime trash was Styrofoam trays led to a transition to plastic trays and the purchase of a dishwasher for the cafeteria. The Willard PTG led the way back then, but the Earth Care Club played a major role in preparing for the event this time around.

“We’ve been working on trying to reduce, reuse and recycle, and to use less trash, so some people are doing trash patrol,” said Amanda Vejins, a fifth-grader and Earth Care Club member.

“It’s telling people what to put in each bin,” added Lily Supovitz, a classmate and fellow club member. 

The students also made promotional posters, shared information during morning announcements and created an informational video for Litter-Free Lunch Week.

Said Madison Castor, another fifth-grader and club member, “What’s amazing is, in one day without this we use more than one-and-a-half bags of trash, and yesterday we only had half a bag for kindergarten through fifth grade, which is really good.”

The Earth Care Club was conceived two years ago, and this year has been getting involved in many activities at the school. Litter-free lunch week is just this month’s project. The Earth Care Club is also working on a yearlong initiative to reduce paper consumption by reusing before they recycle. 

The club, which meets before school every other week, has about 20 members in third, fourth in fifth grades.

“It seemed really fun,” Jackson said. “And I always think about what the earth would be like later on if we don’t take care of it.”

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