Moving Toward a Zero Waste Lifestyle
In 2008, the Omaha Public Schools, adopted the Green Schools Initiative (2004-2016) and moved to a single-stream recycling program. Since then, its schools have recycled paper, cardboard, plastic and metals, reduced the use of natural resources and increased its efforts to teach students how to live healthier lifestyles. Among the schools that have received recognition (one of nine national awards in 2014) for their efforts is Fontenelle Elementary under the leadership of Principal Eric Nelson.
Fontenelle’s GSI efforts began when Nelson asked fourth-grade teacher Joey Vickery to start a school garden. Initially, the garden was comprised of small plots planted and tended by students. It later expanded to a community garden for families. Vickery also partnered with The Big Garden’s, Executive Director Nathan Morgan and his staff to teach students more about gardening, cooking and nutrition. Today, in addition to the garden, the school has a greenhouse, butterfly garden, a composting container and yes, chickens. The garden has helped students reinforce science and math concepts, learn about environmental sustainability and eat healthier. During this same time period it also began a recycling program that included moving from Styrofoam plates to paper plates and dividing recyclable items from those that couldn’t be.
This year, the school took its recycling efforts to the next level when Matthew Cronin of The Big Garden introduced Vickery to Brent Crampton of Hillside Solutions – a company that teaches how to live a zero waste lifestyle through composting and recycling. Hillside provides the school with bins for food waste collection then picks the bins up and transports them to the area’s only commercial composting farm Soil Dynamics. In turn, the farm uses the compost materials to create rich top soil, which is sold and will also be used by Fontenelle for its community garden.
“Fontenelle currently has eight composting bins that students throw their food scraps in each day during lunch,” said Crampton. “The paper trays they use are also collected and added to the compost, which means the only things making their way to trash bins are milk cartons and plastic silverware. Those could eventually be recycled to places that convert plastics into fuel. Thereby creating zero waste.”
As a result, the school has gone from 26-30 bags of trash a day to three (the equivalent of 300 pounds of waste making its way to area landfills to 150 pounds), waste collection has been cut to three times a week instead of daily, fewer plastic garbage bags are being used and the school engineer has more free time to attend to the school’s other needs. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
“I think this program is phenomenal,” said Nelson. “Every school in the state should be doing it. Aside from the obvious reduction of waste, it teaches students environmental responsibility, and helps them understand how what they used to throw away made a negative impact on the environment and their health. And they are learning a new lifestyle that will help them create a better world in the future.”
It is also worthy to note, that as of 2015, the district has attained $5.3 million in cumulative cost reduction and avoidance, 48,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions prevented cumulatively, 17.5 Energy Star rating points of improvement from baseline, 130% increase in recycling volume in five years and 4% decrease in waste volume in five years. The Omaha Public Schools continues to work with Sally Hopley of Verdis Group – a sustainability group in Omaha to continually improve its efforts.