When students across the country head to their cafeterias for lunch every day, one item tends to stick out: those 8-ounce paper milk cartons, a school lunch staple.

But, as it turns out, the cartons, which also contain plastic liner and can be used only once, are a big contributor to food waste in school buildings. They also cannot be composted, so they go straight to the landfill.

Identifying milk cartons as an easy way to eliminate unnecessary waste and save money, Evanston Township High School’s nutrition services team recently won a state grant of $21,000 to install bulk milk dispensers at all four of the high school’s cafeterias, officials announced at a school board meeting Monday, May 8.

“We can reduce packaging waste by up to 91% by volume, so that’s pretty impressive. And students claim that the milk tastes better because it’s colder, and it actually increases consumption by 50%,” Assistant Director of Nutrition Services Kelsey Brommel said, referencing data collected by the Midwest Dairy Association. “Milk is good for our students, and they’re likely to drink more of it. We’ll see if that’s the case here, but we’re excited to test this out.”

From left: ETHS Assistant Director of Nutrition Services Kelsey Brommel, outgoing Director of Operations Clarence Gregory and new Director of Operations and Sustainability John Crawford. Credit: ETHS YouTube

The bulk milk effort is part of a larger sustainability movement at ETHS with an eye to reducing the building’s massive energy consumption levels and the paper and plastic waste that daily school activities often produce. E-Town Sunrise, a student climate justice club at the high school, organized multiple protests last year and spoke at school board meetings to advocate for the hiring of a sustainability coordinator.

Responding to that demand, ETHS promoted John Crawford, longtime lead power plant engineer, to a new position of director of operations and sustainability. Clarence Gregory, the current director of operations, is retiring after the current school year, and Crawford will oversee renewable energy and sustainability efforts moving forward.

‘When can you meet?’

“The day I got named as sustainability coordinator, I got an email from my friends at E-Town Sunrise, and they said ‘Hey, Mr. Crawford, congratulations. When can you meet?'” Crawford said. “I’ve been meeting with them every month since. I think I’ve given them a level of transparency and openness that they really appreciate. They’re leading a group of students, community members, staff, administration and a board member. They hope to develop a sustainability policy that hopefully, we can pass here at the school board.”

In 2018 the high school started a “strategic energy management” program to cut down on electricity, natural gas use and CO2 emissions. In the 2021 calendar year, the most recent year for which ETHS has a full set of data, the school used 20% less electricity, 31% less natural gas and emitted 31% less greenhouse gases compared with 2018.

In 2021 alone, those cuts amounted to cost savings of more than $360,000, Crawford reported to the school board. ETHS currently purchases 100% of its electricity through renewable sources, primarily from a wind farm in Texas, he said. Brommel also highlighted how the school is using reusable lunch trays only as well as reusable cups.

ETHS also recently did a roof assessment to gauge the feasibility of installing solar panels. As the building stands now, just nine of 159 roof elevations are viable for solar panels, according to Crawford, but two other options include adding a 10th usable roof through a replacement and buying a carport solar array for the parking lot. The carport would be much more expensive, he said, but if all of those potential paths end up being used, solar energy could offset about 19% of the building’s total annual energy use.

In any case, a more thorough, official proposal for buying solar energy could come up before the board in the coming months, along with a drafted sustainability policy formed by that committee that E-Town Sunrise is leading.

“It sounds brilliant,” board President Pat Savage-Williams told Crawford. “You’re really thinking through how to save, and teaching students that this is what we do.”

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. Ah, the cafeteria milk dispenser! Those little cartons always made it less appealing. For a while, 1960s, Champaign High School let is take a glass to pour into. Military mess halls always had dispensers. The milk reconstituted from powder served to U.S. Forces Korea was better from dispensers than was the same plant’s output into 8- 16- or 64-ounce cartons. Or so said the food specialists in my office.

  2. EXCELLENT! The milk in those little cartons tastes horrible anyway. I run a weekly lunch program at my child’s school and I buy gallons of milk from Costco and serve it in reusable cups. Good job ETHS!