Prairie Creek students learn to respect and care for their environment through hands-on recycling, reusing, and conserving resources. To support this learning, our Go Green Initiative kicked off in 2010 with the aim of turning the school’s trash into a teachable waste-stream—that is, giving attention in everyday lessons to the paper, food, cans, glass, and plain old garbage that exits our building every day, and then changing our practices to make sure these materials end up in the proper places.
The good news is that putting this simple idea into practice gives students the chance to do real-life environmental study and stewardship every day at school: they compost their lunch leftovers and milk cartons, they recycle their extra paper and plastics in classrooms, they calculate trash weights and volumes, they turn garbage into gardens.
In our progressive approach to education, Prairie Creek has a proven track record of instruction that relies on peer-to-peer, cross-age and cross-ability teaching and learning. So it’s in keeping with tradition for our faculty to use these methods to create curriculum and support our students in these environmental studies and activities, and for our community volunteers to enhance the academics by arranging funding and supporting field trips.
Food for thought
At Prairie Creek we recognize food composting as the next advancement in the recycling movement that has already seen innovative reform in yard waste, plastics, paper, cardboard, and glass. Our volunteer-led school food service practices a no-waste school lunch program that reflects these values and fosters opportunities for real-world education.
We do this by composting the organics and paper products that remain at at the end of our school lunch—leftover food, napkins, and milk cartons all go into the nifty yellow compost bins, and the kids’ trays, bowls, and flatwear go into the dishwasher to be cleaned and reused. Nothing from the lunch service goes into the school’s garbage. We encourage kids who bring their lunches from home to use nondisposable containers, and to “pack their trash” (stuff like chip wrappers and juice boxes) into their backpacks for the return trip.
In this program students become fluent in the methods and practice of composting food and food-related papers at school. Kids bring this learning home every day—they introduce it to their families and form sound habits that continue after graduation. Taking responsibility for school food—from cooking to eating to disposal to recycling—invites our children and staff to learn life lessons about their geographical location in the farmland of south-central Minnesota, and about the fundamental cycles of growth, consumption, and decomposition that sustains our local economy and food system.
Go Green kicks off
Prairie Creek was fortunate to win endorsement from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in the form of a generous grant to help get our schoolwide Go Green Initiative up and running. This funding went to good use fast. In the Fall of 2010, we did a full-on equipment survey at school that asked questions like:
-Are there easy-to-use recycling bins in every classroom, office, and hallway?
-Do kids always have the choice of recycling or trashing whatever they’ve got in their hands, no matter where they are in the school building?
-Can our custodians always tell which bin goes into the recycling and which goes into the trash?
-Is there consistency when it comes to color-coding, labels, and bins throughout the whole school?
-And the ultimate questions: How can the lunch service get to a no-waste lunch, and how can our school get to a teachable waste stream?
This survey gave up some surprising answers—and resulted in the purchase of new recycling and trash bins for 34 sites inside the building, including classrooms, offices, hallways, library, art and music rooms, bathrooms, and kitchen. Take a look! You’ll see the labeled green (recycling) + black (trash) sets side-by-side all over the place, and two big yellow bins for composting. In our research we discovered that compliance rates for recycling and composting go way up when all bins are identical and when there’s always a choice of where to properly toss materials. This color-coding, labeling, and uniformity has greatly assisted our custodians in figuring out what’s what and where it goes. And it’s really spiked Prairie Creek’s volume of recycling and composting, and in turn cut way down on our trash.
Full Circle Foods
Prairie Creek marked Go Green’s inaugural year with a lively theme in the 2-3 classrooms called Full Circle Foods. During these studies, the Egrets, Meadowlarks, and Cranes crisscrossed the landscape in their research on the food cycle from soil to seed to plant to harvest to food to compost and back to soil: they visited local growers like Open Hands Farm, Finca Mirasol, and Gardens of Eagan; toured the StoGrow farm, kitchen, cafeteria, and composting operation at St. Olaf College; and thrilled at the stink and steaming piles of compost at The Mulch Store in Rosemount/Empire, where Prairie Creek now sends its compostable leftovers, napkins, and milk cartons from our daily lunch service.
These 60 students performed Go Green-related skits and music at All School Gatherings, shared their learning among all grade levels, and distributed equipment throughout the building. In the late fall they hosted a community-wide Empty Bowls dinner: they cooked soup from local produce they’d harvested on field trips, created placemats and menus, and served the meal in ceramic bowls they made in art class and sold at the event. In this one evening, these Prairie Creekers raised more than $1000 to donate to the Northfield Food Shelf on our school’s behalf.
In Spring 2011 these students used the compost created by lunch leftovers to construct a series of raised-bed gardens, and the following fall they harvested these vegetables and herbs, and cooked up some delicious salsa to share. Full Circle, indeed!
Waste Stream Studies
With the MPCA grant, the 2-3 classrooms also undertook a hands-on study of Prairie Creek’s waste stream—using their mathematic skills to weigh, measure, and tally the entire school’s trash-recycling-compostable load for 10 consecutive days in the fall of 2010 (a “baseline figure”) and again in the spring of 2011 (a “comparison figure”) in order to see just how smart the school got during Go Green’s first year in operation.
This Trash Tally uncovered the mysteries surrounding Prairie Creek's daily averages, and led to some savvy changes:
We started the program with a big, ugly 6-yard dumpster parked in front of the school. This dumpster is meant for just trash, but it turned out that lots of recyclable stuff (paper, especially) and compostable stuff (food, napkins, milk cartons) weren’t being correctly sorted out and were ending up stuck in the garbage. By the end of the school year, Go Green had given The Biggest Loser a run for its money by putting our dumpster on a diet and shrinking it to a svelte 2-yard model. Alongside this beauty now sit three recycling bins and two composting bins—a stylish line-up for sure, and a testament to the real-world environmental studies and choices being made inside the building.
The 2-3 Trash Tally put this visual image into hard numbers. During Go Green’s first year:
Prairie Creek diverted 4939 pounds of compostable material from our trash dumpster and sent it off to a local processing plant to be turned into rich, sweet mulch.
Prairie Creek culled 3730 pounds of recyclable materials from the dumpster and packed it off to a local recycling facility, which turned it into reusable goods.
You can see from the figures so far that Go Green diverts thousands of pounds—more than four tons!—of food and recyclable waste from the landfill each year, and in doing so does our school’s part in reducing perilous greenhouse gases.
The green ripple effect
Prairie Creek envisions an even greener school. We're currently working on ways to reduce our paper consumption, setting up a Go Green Station in the library devoted to eco-literacy and environmental resources, and "closing the loop" by designing ways to use more of our compost for school gardening and landscaping.
Go Green goes beyond the building
Prairie Creek is mindful of its place within the larger community as a leader in progressive education, and as such we make our Go Green methods and success contagious by sharing information, practical guidance, and inspiration to school families about composting and recycling though student-led projects and programs. We’ve compiled the instructional and educational materials we’ve generated for this program so far, and made them available to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and to like-minded schools who are also determined to evolve their recycling and composting practices.
Ultimately, supporting our students in their acquisition of principled ecological literacy helps Prairie Creek to foster a new generation of citizens who are more careful of their waste and its impacts on the environment.
Check out other schools that practice environmental stewardship and education at Minnesota Green Schools.