Take Your School Zero Waste in Three Steps

I recently interviewed Greg Ellis-Valencia, Executive Director of One Cool Earth, a non-profit in San Luis Obispo, California, that builds and maintains school gardens. The organization currently oversees 18 of these educational gardens. It has also worked with these schools to build the largest student-run zero-waste program in California schools.

If you live outside of San Luis Obispo but would like to implement zero waste in your child’s school, thanks to a generous grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, One Cool Earth has developed an online, step-by-step guide that explains the process. The guide includes videos, how-to’s, downloads and graphics. You’ll find the guide here.

Just some of the benefits of One Cool Earth’s zero-waste program:

  • Diverts an average of 58% of total waste from landfill (in the 2016-2017 school year)
  • Individual schools save up to $3000 each year in waste hauling costs
  • Reduces waste and litter on campus
  • Improves waste-management practices among students’ families and communities
  • Students take on leadership roles
  • Students from Santa Rita School convinced the district’s superintendent to replace styrofoam trays in the cafeteria with reusable ones
  • The program (and school gardens) provides hands-on learning opportunities in STEAM subjects: science, technology, engineering, arts—yes, the arts is a thing—and math

ZWC: One Cool Earth is heavily involved in school gardens. How can gardens help save the world?

Greg Ellis-Valencia: Ideally, we eat three meals a day. All that food comes from farms, whether you’re a meat eater or vegetarian. School gardens really bring back that essential connection to the land. Food is such a rich experience and has such a huge environmental footprint. Growing it distills life down to one if its essential functions—eating—and makes that experience so much more profound and connected. Through land use, water use and energy use, a great portion of many people’s footprints is related to diet.

ZWC: On your website, I noticed something called “food forests”—sort of the opposite of food deserts. Could you please explain what these are?

Greg: In most urban areas, there’s lots of landscaping that is purely decorative and it only has one function, which is to look good. We are promoting a landscaping ethic that gives landscape multiple functions, especially producing food. Many of the food-producing plants also produce food for wildlife—birds and insects and critters—so it’s creating habitat as well.

We have about eight educators who are going around to about 18 schools. They’re at each school at least once a week for a full day. They try to teach three classrooms the day they’re there, and keep the garden maintained. We try to get in three plantings and three harvests every year—lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins.

ZWC: Family cooking nights also caught my eye on the website. What are those?

Greg: We stole the idea from a national organization that does The Kids Cook Monday. We were doing them on non-Mondays and so just called it Family Cooking Night. It’s really an opportunity for students to get together with their families and learn a skill and connect with their families in a meaningful way. Cooking together reduces dinner-time conflicts, it reduces conflicts over foods, getting kids to eat vegetables is easier when they’ve had a part in preparing them. This fits into the food part of the three threads of our program—food, water and waste.

ZWC: Speaking of water, do the kids learn about water conservation?

That water ethic is just really integrated in a lot of what we do but there are a few specific things we do to try and save water. One of them is to install gardens that include native plants. They subsist off of whatever rainfall you get every year. They don’t take any more water. Usually we’re able to install them where there used to be lawn. So we’re able to reduce the water use of that school.

We also do a little project where we teach about home water use. Students take home a worksheet and they calculate their personal water use at home. The worksheet estimates how many times a day they flush the toilet, how many gallons it uses and they do the math to figure out how much water they use on a weekly basis. If they fill in the worksheet—they’re own little home water audit—and they get a permission slip signed, we give them a low-flow shower head and a leak protection kit for their toilet.

ZWC: We’ve talked about food and water, now let’s talk about waste. How does zero waste make sense financially and legally?

Greg: Financially, in California, it makes a lot of sense because recycling is a lower cost than landfill haul away fees. We did a study and we’re saving $3000 a year at one of the schools just by recycling.

Composting takes more effort but by 2020 most schools will legally have to compost in the entire state of California. There’s a law on the books now that requires any large producer of waste—and most schools fit into that category—to do a certain amount of diversion and do composting.

It makes sense. Good nutrients are taken out of the cycle when food waste is hauled away to landfill. We put it back in the soil through vermicompost [composting with worms].

ZWC: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to schools going zero waste?

Greg: The biggest obstacle for schools to get started on zero waste really is a very low barrier.  There are so many benefits to zero wasting at school: cost savings, student engagement, educational opportunities, environmental impacts, school cleanliness. I really think the problem is a lack of advocates who can promote zero waste to school administrators and staff.

The other challenge is to get the custodians adjusted to the program. But they often think that it’s worthwhile to get students to learn about their waste. Many of the schools that have adopted the program did so to support student behavioral interventions, providing kids with a chance to do something good.

Getting the program up and running takes some effort, but once it’s going the student’s really keep it going. We have a step-by-step process and breakdown for the green teams on our website.

I’d say the first step is to talk to the principal or at least one enthusiastic teacher and plan from there, based on the school’s willingness to go forward.

So now that you want to get on board and implement zero waste at your child’s school, follow One Cool Earth’s three-step process to zero waste.

Step 1. Form a Green Team

Members of the green team:

  • Teach students what can be recycled and composted
  • Take care of worm bins
  • Divert as much as possible from landfill
  • Make signs so other students know what to do
  • Take turns so all students have the opportunity to be on the green team
  • Check the weekly schedule so they know when their turn comes up
  • Wear a badge, pin, bracelet or shirt when they’re on the green team

Step 2. Create a Waste Station

To run this station, members:

  • Arrange a lineup of bins in the lunch area for recycling, worm compost, landfill and possibly other bins for liquids or edible, uneaten food to share
  • Add more bins as necessary—some schools start with three but then increase to four, five or six
  • Oversee sorting and help instruct students on what goes where

Step 3. Vermicompost

At the worm compost station, members:

  • Set up 5-gallon buckets with wood inserts on the bottom to collect and chop food scraps
  • Create and post easy-to-read signs
  • Set up one macro bin for each day of the school week, plus one for resting
  • Maintain macro bins with the proper amounts of sawdust and water
  • Regularly turn the material in the macro bins to break it up and add more oxygen
  • Keep the worms happy

If you live in the San Luis Obispo area and want to bring the program to your school, volunteer or find out more, contact One Cool Earth at 805-242-6301 or action@onecoolearth.org. Follow the nonprofit’s day-to-day activities on Facebook and visit www.onecoolearth.org to learn more and take action.

2 Replies to “Take Your School Zero Waste in Three Steps”

  1. Danielle Epifani says: Reply

    This is *MAGIC*. I was profoundly influenced by Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard Project here in Berkeley, CA. It inspired me to open a preschool with edibles, chickens, and finally install a native riparian habitat with over 150 different species in our formerly ivy covered backyard. My son was fortunate to attend King Middle School and even film a documentary for their anniversary. A proud moment so many years later for me. I was also able to write (2) grants with this exact plan through NOAA’s Ocean Guardian School program. VERY WORTHWHILE opportunity waiting to be tapped. The resources are there folks! Do it! Thanks so much for this interview. Made my day!

  2. Hello Anne Marie! What an excellent name (ha ha, I am Anne, with Marie as my middle name). I enjoy reading, re-reading, and thinking about your blog. I am pretty pro-active in my zero-waste kitchen habits, and am working hard to get family members on board. Once a year I cook for a kid’s arts camp at my church (where I used to be the kitchen manager, and where I think I still have a fair amount of well-regarded influence). For one week we serve breakfast, lunch, and snacks to around 60 elementary-school campers, and approximately 40 teen counselors and adult volunteers/teachers. I find that the challenge in executing zero waste strategies in that context is really more about getting buy-in and interest from the adult volunteers. This is in Marin County, where you would think we would have more interest and honestly, something like a rabid crew of zero-waste fanatics. But I don’t have that crew, I have lovely volunteers who love their ziplock bags, Nestle chocolate powder, and individually packaged treats. I don’t want to scare off my fantastic kitchen volunteers, so I have been taking the gentle tack for the past few years. For instance, I have tried providing homemade chocolate syrup for the morning hot chocolate instead of buying the Nestle powder they prefer, making yogurt in bulk and bringing my homemade jam to serve it with, and hoping they will catch on. One thing that complicates this is we get donated food from a (wonderful) organization called ExtraFood.org, but it tends to be a lot of almost-expired packaged stuff that didn’t sell, such as spiral sweet potato noodles, granola bars, splenda-sweetened individually packaged yogurts, etc. One year we got a lot of terrific produce from the farmer’s market, but last year we mostly got a lot of white bread about to go moldy, and the aforementioned poison yogurt. I get a lot of feedback from other volunteers who are thrilled at the cost savings and that “the kids really like getting single-serve yogurts in individual containers!” Meanwhile I feel like we are helping to justify the tax write-off that grocery stores get that helps them justify larger volume orders of stuff that people don’t really want to buy (and shouldn’t buy!) anyway. I also feel like I am feeding the kids way too much white bread, which of course they loved.

    I’m wondering if you can say more about having inspiring conversations with people about zero waste ideals? Your blog is full of fantastic EXAMPLES, terrific actions, wonderful recipes, all of which are like a drug to someone like me, I can’t wait for the next hit. But can you tell me how to get better at marketing this to newbies? Wonderful, volunteering, unsuspecting newbies.

    Thanks so much for your very addicting blog!

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