Environmental School Starts Recycling Breakfast

Melissa Bailey PhotoEight years after launching as a magnet school with an environmental theme, Barnard Environmental Studies has entered the next frontier in green living: Saving that breakfast waste from ending up in the trash bin.

Barnard, a pre-K to 8 school serving 570 kids from New Haven and beyond, has made numerous environmentally friendly upgrades since it moved into a $43 million new building in 2006. The school boasts three greenhouses, a courtyard vegetable garden, and a large solar panel display.

Yet until September, the school was not recycling all the packaging that comes with morning breakfast. All kids at Barnard get free breakfast, inside the classroom, when they show up to school. All K-8 schools receive pre-packaged breakfasts, shrink-wrapped by Lindley Food Service Corp., paid for by federally subsidized meals program.

Managing the waste from those breakfasts is a challenge for principals around town: If a student eats just part of the package, the rest of the food can’t be returned to the cafeteria. So the remains usually get tossed out. And kids often leave behind a bowl of soggy cereal and milk. If the soggy cereal gets tossed into the trash, it creates a smelly and heavy mess for the custodian to cart away. Brennan/Rogers School Principal Karen Lott said the breakfasts pose a “challenge” for the school “because the kids don’t finish the food.” Her school experimented with recycling the cereal containers last year in 2nd-grade classrooms, but the recycling effort died out. Today, she said, the school recycles some plastic and the paper lunch trays, but not the plastic that holds the cereal.

Eric Yuhas, assistant principal at Sound School, a marine-themed magnet high school, said his school does recycles breakfast waste. (Unlike elementary schools, high schools serve hot breakfast to students, so the supplies come in bulk and are easier to recycle.)

Barnard staff decided to tackle the issue when staff convened in August and brainstormed ways to promote more green living. A teacher floated the idea of recycling breakfast—not the half-eaten food, but the packaging that comes with it.

The recycling program took off, and is now diverting tons of waste from the trash bin to the recycling stream. The program is one of several components that earned the school a state “Green Ribbon” award for environmental consciousness earlier this month.

Two 2nd-grade Barnard students, Ella Santanelli and Sebastian Tejada, explained the new routine during breakfast at the school Thursday morning. The two were on official breakfast duty. The class, taught by Katelyn Allen and Keliegh Thompson, chowed down on a breakfast of juice, milk, graham crackers, and Frosted Flakes or Kix cereal.

Ella and Sebastian stood by the classroom sink accepting kids’ empty or half-empty breakfast trays. Sebastian accepted a bowl of half-eaten Kix and dumped it into a strainer. Each classroom now has a strainer, which the school staff bought at a dollar store, according to Marjorie Drucker, the school’s point-person for integrating the environmental theme into the classroom.

By straining the cereal, Sebastian let the milk go down the sink instead of into the trash bin. And he saved the plastic bowl for the recycling bin.

When they came across an open carton of milk or juice, they dumped that down the sink, too.

“If we don’t wash the milk carton, it’s going to be stinky,” explained Sebastian.

The duo also opened unopened cartons of milk and juice and tossed out their contents in the sink. It was wasteful, but less wasteful than before—now, the cartons would be headed for the recycling bin instead of getting dumped in the trash.

When they came across a packaged piece of food, such as uneaten graham crackers, they stashed them along the sink for afternoon snack time. Sebastian said he has learned to check the expiration date to make sure the food is still good.

Ella found an orange. She set that aside—“we can compost that.” The school composts some waste, including extra muffins, which students crumble in their hands first.

The lunch trays—paper, not styrofoam—got stacked against the wall. Those would be used for art projects, book reports, pottery class, or whatever other use a teacher could find.

After Ella and Sebastian finished their work, Ella grabbed a large bin of clean cartons and headed for the door. Outside each door, the school has now stationed two bins: One for recycling and one for trash.

Sebastian did the honors of dumping the cartons in the blue bin.

Then head custodian Scirocco took over. Last year, he said, he would simply make one trip through the halls and throw all the breakfast waste into the trash. The trash used up about 27 trash bags per morning, according to Drucker. Scirocco couldn’t leave the half-empty trash bins in the hallway because they would smell. Now, he said, with the milk and juice removed from the waste stream, he can leave the less-smelly trash bins for the night crew to empty. And he can save a lot of the breakfast waste from ever ending up in the trash.

Scirocco (pictured) piled the waste bags into a large, rolling bin, made his way through the hallways, and headed to the parking lot.

He swung the bag of recyclables from the 2nd-grade class to the brink of a large recycling bin. Because the trash bags are not recyclable, he shook the contents out of the bag. And he stashed a cardboard box, also from breakfast, into a separate bin for cardboard recycling.

The city saves $46 for every ton of waste that’s diverted from the trash to the recycling bin, according to Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts. Barnard doesn’t track the tonnage of waste that goes to recycling and trash. Scirocco said from his experience, he can say that the trash is “way, way” lighter than it was before.

The school does track the number of trash bags versus recycling bags that get tossed out each morning. Before the recycling effort, the count was 27 trash to zero recycling. Now, on a good month, the count is closer to 16 trash, 13 recycling. “We never have a day where there’s just all trash,” Drucker said.

To reenforce the new system, the school spot-checks classrooms to see how much recycling is going on. Classrooms with no recyclables in their trash bins get awarded with “Perky Perfect Penguins,” or sometimes frogs, recognizing their good work.

Drucker said the program is supporting a greener planet by reducing waste, reducing plastic bag consumption—and getting kids in the routine of recycling every day, in the hopes that it will extend to their lives outside school.

Barnard Principal Mike Crocco said the program has required everyone in the building, including adults, to think harder about where their waste goes and develop greener habits.

“Our goal is to really live the green life,” Drucker said. “Everything we do, we’re taking a look at.”

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posted by: Rob Smuts on March 22, 2013  12:17pm

For every ton that is recycled, and not thrown out, the City saves $46, and our affiliated Solid Waste and Recycling Authority gains another $52.

For every ton that is composted and not thrown out, the City saves $82 and the Authority loses $12.

Great work to everyone involved in this effort - helping out the Earth and New Haven taxpayers!

posted by: HewNaven on March 22, 2013  3:33pm

Rob Smuts,

Are you implying that its not worth the effort to compost our waste, or am I misunderstanding your comment. I was wondering why they’re not composting the food waste at Barnard. It would seem appropriate for an environmental school. What am I missing?

Also, I can’t help but notice that all the foods and utensils for the children are each individually packaged, thus increasing the amount of waste produced. Is that necessary? The article mentions that it may be easier to buy in bulk when preparing hot breakfast which is served in high schools. Why can’t we buy in bulk for cold breakfast and have the teacher serve? I wouldn’t be surprised if these children could measure and serve themselves, judging by the two featured in this article they seem more than intelligent enough. And why not have reusable spoons and bowls that they hand wash in the classroom or send out to the cafeteria for auto wash? It seems like we’re creating an enormous amount of waste for no reason.

posted by: Kel Youngs on March 22, 2013  10:08pm

The school maintains compost piles in the school garden.  The typical peels and cores are composted.  Adding cereal and other food waste products to outside compost bins could possibly attract unwanted guests.  To address this issue we do effectively compost cereal and lunchroom ‘ort’ with red worms.  Currently we are building up our worm population in order to convert more food waste into worm castings. Since the worms are tropical, their bins are located in a heated greenhouse.  We also use shredded paper from the office for our worm bedding which the worms also ingest and turn into castings.  Milk is a problem, but Red worms do eat yogurt and that can be made fairly easily. The worms have also enjoyed rice and beans, napkins, and a few stray pieces of chicken.

posted by: HewNaven on March 23, 2013  10:43am

Kel Youngs -

Awesome! Thank you for explaining that. Its good to hear that Barnard is committed to compost!

I’m still confused by Rob Smuts’ comment though. I think I’m just misunderstanding his words/math. Can someone “dumb it down” for me?

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 23, 2013  11:42am

Having served at Barnard, I can vouch for the excellence of its teachers and staff.

Barnard could be the flag ship school for NHPS if it were run by its teachers without central office control.

Perhaps the new mayor and superintendent will let this excellent school spread its wings and fly.