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Elementary school students lead the way in reducing amount of food waste going to landfills

'If we're teaching them that we have to take care of the Earth, we have to actually practice taking care of the Earth in the school.'

Elementary school students lead the way in reducing amount of food waste going to landfills
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/paul mansfield photography

Students at Beecher Road Elementary School in Woodbridge, Connecticut, are pros at reducing food waste. Since fall 2019, the youngsters have been taking part in a food-waste diversion program that's been successful in saving money, helping others and reducing the amount of trash that heads to landfills. This plays a huge role in the fight against climate change as festering waste in landfills decomposes and emits methane—a potent greenhouse gas that heats the planet—worsening the already dire climate situation. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), reducing the emission of this gas is the most effective way to slow climate change.


In a global assessment press release in 2021, the UNEP called for "urgent" action to reduce methane emissions this decade. "Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide. The benefits to society, economies, and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the cost. We need international cooperation to urgently reduce methane emissions as much as possible this decade," Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said in the release.


According to statistics from Blue Earth Compost in Connecticut, Beecher Road School's program diverts more than 1,300 pounds of food waste every month, saving an estimated 772 pounds in CO2 emissions and producing 180 kilowatt-hours of energy. "It's a good thing because you're helping the environment and saving the planet," sixth-grader Kirian told PEOPLE. Beej Ahern, one of the two environmentally minded teachers who helped start the program, explained that implementing such food-waste reduction efforts in schools is both cheap and easy to implement. "It's easy for the kids to do and easy to set up," said Ahern. "So it's win-win."


Once they are done with their lunch, students head to a designated section of the cafeteria—a row of desks, rolling metal carts, garbage cans, buckets and containers—and sort their leftovers and trash. While liquids, such as juice or milk, are emptied into a bucket on the floor, paper milk cartons, juice containers and plastic water bottles are placed into another container to recycle. Scraps of raw food waste—such as lettuce, potatoes, apples and bread crusts—are dumped into a trash bin to be composted. This compost then finds its way to the school's garden where it is used as fertilizer.


Meanwhile, prepackaged, unopened snacks such as bags of carrots, boxes of raisins, apples and bananas are "rescued" and placed into a big basket with a handwritten "Donations" sign taped to it to send to the town's senior center. The benefits of Beecher Road School's food-waste diversion program are numerous. "The children are learning to take care of the Earth," said teacher Kris Hart Rooney, who started the food waste reduction program with Ahern. The idea for the program was originally brought up by a parent named Hillary Drumm in 2018 after she was inspired by a composting workshop at her children's preschool and a successful food-waste reduction program in the cafeteria where she works. "Food waste is one of the easiest things to do to reduce greenhouse gases," she explained. "It's the biggest, easiest hit you can do. I just thought it was a really easy thing for the school to do."


After reaching out to the town, the district and the school with her proposal, Drumm and a few other parents ran a pilot program in spring 2018, where kids were asked to separate food into different bins for a few days. "We weighed everything and found that about half the trash that was thrown out in the cafeteria during lunch was food waste in pounds," she said. Hart Rooney believes it is important to practice what you preach. "I think we have to practice what we're teaching kids in school," she said. "So if we're teaching them that we have to take care of the Earth, we have to actually practice taking care of the Earth in the school. It was very important to put things in place that would model what sustainable living is for the children."


The kids also love the planet-friendly ritual, Ahern revealed. "They believe they're making a difference, and to them it's actually kind of fun. They're like, 'I get to pour my milk out,' and it's like a little game," she said. "You learn how to do it and teach the next person. It's good for everyone and everything, so it's not something you have to convince anyone of. You just have to show them so they can be thoughtful, too."

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