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On a very cold February morning, about 40 students file into the lunchroom at Dewey Elementary School. Some of the kids are solemn, some are talking to friends, but all shoot curious glances at the giant projector screen hanging from the ceiling and the woman standing in front of it. The students settle down at lunch tables that are covered not with real food but with cards that have pictures of food and food packaging.

The students are attending a presentation called “Why We Compost and Recycle.” The presenter is a Dewey parent. The reason for this event is that Dewey students have been separating their food scraps and napkins into a special bucket at the lunchroom waste station since August – but most don’t know why. No one has told them.

For the 2018-2019 school year, District 65 agreed to try a composting pilot program at five Evanston schools (Bessie Rhodes, Washington, Dewey, Willard and Kingsley). The District’s part in the program is largely paying the bill for the weekly pickup of compost totes at each school by Collective Resource, an Evanston and woman-owned business that is the City’s composting partner. Before the school year began, Green Team parents met with principals, lunchroom staff and custodians to work out everything else. This included setting up the lunchroom waste stations to accommodate new compost buckets and meeting with school staff to explain the program.

Once the school year began, lunchroom staff helped students properly sort their leftover liquids, recyclables, trash, food scraps and now-compostable cardboard lunch trays (last year they were styrofoam) every day. All this has to be accomplished quickly as students surge toward the waste stations at the end of a 20-minute lunch period. Months into the composting pilot program, plastic items and other non-compostables were still regularly ending up in the compost bins.

That is where the parent presentations came in. At Dewey, parents asked students what they knew about where trash, recyclables and compostables go when they leave the school. The students played a “waste sorting game” by dropping cards with pictures of, for example, orange peels, milk cartons, pizza crusts or ketchup packets into labeled buckets set up like a lunchroom waste sorting station. Finally, the students watched a six-minute video
on the entire composting cycle from soil
to food to compost to soil.

The hope is that these presentations will help students understand why they sort their waste items in the lunchroom and how their daily actions connect to larger issues like climate change and caring for the planet. District 65 Green Team parents have also developed lessons about composting that teachers can use as part of the classroom curriculum to reinforce practices like composting and recycling over time.

Anyone wishing to learn how to start a lunchroom composting program at their child’s school can email D65GreenTeams@gmail.com.