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Encanto Elementary students learn to reduce, reuse and recycle

Encanto Elementary students learn to reduce, reuse and recycle
Posted on 03/01/2017

Artwork of birds, animals and insects

Picture this. An outdoor garden living room made from repurposed furniture. A bin full of rich compost made from school salad bar scraps. Strikingly beautiful garden murals painted onto recycled wood slabs. Bird feeders made from cardboard toilet paper rolls, peanut butter, and birdseed. Germination kits made from plastic lunch containers. Bins of empty cans and bottles ready to be recycled. Labeled buckets waiting near the cafeteria tables, ready to collect food, milk and packaging waste during lunchtime.

Encanto Elementary is a "Zero Waste" school. Recycling, composting, food recovery, trash repurposing and other environment-friendly projects simultaneously serve to: minimize school-wide trash, enrich the organic school garden, reverse critical habitat loss, teach students about the importance of the environment, and empower students to respectfully protect and preserve the beautiful natural earth around us.

Lynn Howard is Encanto's beloved science enrichment teacher, school garden coordinator, and zero waste champion. She fosters the hearts and minds of her students through ‘project-based learning,' emboldening them to take the lead in science-based craft projects, school-wide recycling projects and lunchtime food recovery projects.

"There is some kind of magic that happens when disenfranchised kids can be empowered to help others," says Howard.

Howard works alongside students, cafeteria staff, school staff, dedicated parents and community volunteers to cultivate a school culture that values and prioritizes our natural surroundings.

A group of fourth and fifth graders, called the "Planet Protectors," is especially invested in contributing to a "greener" school culture. These students work with Howard before school, during lunch and after school to divert food and recyclable waste away from the landfill and redirect it to recycling bins, school garden compost, and science and garden craft projects.

To date, the Planet Protectors have won seven awards for their efforts.

The school's garden and lunch area are the hubs of Encanto's zero waste projects. Before school, dedicated Planet Protectors arrive to set up four trash diversion stations near the lunch tables. During each lunch rotation, Planet Protectors oversee the following trash diversion process.

Once students have finished eating, they put their recyclable paper and plastic in one bucket, their fruit and vegetable waste in another bucket, their remaining milk in a third bucket with a strainer, and their regular trash in a fourth bucket. They place any recyclable materials that are dirty in the washing station &; made up of a shallow bucket containing soapy water and a scrub brush.

The Planet Protectors clean and stack recycled food containers, saving them for future science projects. They haul the rest of the recycling to the school's blue recycling dumpsters. They also cut open and weigh leftover milk. They deliver the bucket full of scrapped fruits and vegetables to the school garden.

Not only do Howard and her Planet Protectors divert trash from the landfill to the recycling in order to protect the environment, but they actually repurpose some of that trash themselves in order to help the environment thrive.

Curious what becomes of those empty food containers that the students cleaned and stacked during lunchtime? Howard and her students transform them into germination kits that students then take home to plant with their families. As a result, families throughout the community start growing flowering plants that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies, creating a pollinator pathway that fosters biodiversity within San Diego County.

And how about those recovered fruit and vegetable scraps from students' plates and from the salad bar? Howard and her students turn this organic waste into compost for the school garden and into food for neighborhood chickens.

So how does Encanto Elementary do it? How is half of their school-wide trash recycled? How are their students so passionate about environmental justice? How does Howard spearhead all of these zero waste initiatives at the school and still have time to be such an exemplary science teacher?

According to Howard, it all comes down to building a strong network of support systems.

First, you need the support of a principal who will allocate time in your schedule for "green" projects. Second, you need the cooperation and assistance of custodians and fellow teachers who will champion recycling efforts in their classrooms and throughout the school. Third, you need to collaborate with cafeteria staff regarding the daily recovery of fruit and vegetable scraps, as well as recyclable food receptacles.

Fourth, you need the support of the school district. Howard emphasizes how San Diego Unified's Recycling Specialist, Janet Whited ([email protected]), has been instrumental in making many of her zero waste aspirations at Encanto come to fruition. (View district recycling resources here.)

Fifth, you need to develop and maintain community partnerships. Howard works with community members to clean up and cultivate the school's bordering canyon, connects with local organizations such as the San Diego Botanic Garden where she can take her students on field trips, applies for local grants, welcomes parent volunteers, holds family festivals in the school garden, leverages the resources available to Encanto as a Title 1 school, and more. She notes that writing really nice thank you letters is an essential key to sustaining positive community partnerships!

Building such an expansive support system not only enabled Howard and Encanto Elementary to achieve their "Zero Waste" status, but it is what will sustain these efforts moving forward.

Encanto Elementary has become a remarkable phenomenon. Students have the opportunity to discover their passion for environmental justice and are empowered to act upon that passion. Various players throughout the school collaborate to make recycling an ingrained element of the school's culture. Science-based projects, such as crafting germination kits, extend biodiversity beyond the school garden. And students experience firsthand how seemingly small actions can actually be enormously impactful (such as putting leftover salad bar scraps in the compost pile instead of in the trash can).

This school's environmental activism via the lunchroom and the school garden teaches us to never underestimate what a vision and teamwork can achieve.

In Howard's words, "Pick one thing you are passionate about and DO IT! Hopefully, others will notice, and then you will have a movement."

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