Elementary Students Learn The Three ‘R’s’ as Future Leaders of Sustainable Practices
Bronxville Elementary students are learning about how to make a personal impact on the planet in small and large ways. During the November GRATITUDE Be3 assembly, they watched with curiosity as Noah Brennan, Sustainability Educator at The Greenburgh Nature Center, picked up a container of trash and emptied its contents onto the auditorium stage. The students' eyes went wide and chuckles spread through the crowd as they gazed upon the mess before them. Then Noah said, “Now, let’s talk about the best way to clean this up.”
Refuse belongs in waste receptacles, but what if all waste isn’t created equal? The answer is to prioritize what can be recycled. As the Sustainability Educator shifted through the items on the stage, he asked the audience which container it should go in: Paper, Trash or Commingle? Hands shot up as he displayed each item.
Paper bag? “Paper!” Metal can? “Commingle!” Plastic fork?, “Commingle!” Glass bottle? “Commingle!” Then he held up a plastic bag. Although, once again, most answers were “Commingle!” one student volunteered the correct answer - trash.
Noah told the student he was correct and then asked him why a plastic bag cannot be recycled. Without missing a beat, the student replied, “Because it has a different chemical compound.” And that is exactly right. The students learned that items like plastic bottles, utensils, and containers are made up of a similar type of plastic, but plastic bags are not. Additionally, plastic bags can get tangled up in recycling machines and cause damage. While plastic bags such as small food baggies get tossed in with non recyclable trash, there is an option for plastic shopping bags. These can be recycled at local grocery stores.
Another tricky item? A potato chip bag, which is a compound of plastic fused with foil. While this item isn’t recyclable, it can be reusable. Noah demonstrated this option by putting the chip bag inside a plastic bottle, explaining that in some parts of the world where resources are hard to get, this has been used as material for insulation. And for those students who enjoy crafts, Noah encouraged everyone to make something cool with recycled materials.
Once all the items had been sorted and placed in their appropriate receptacles, Noah turned the attention back to the audience. He asked, “Who likes food?” The response was an astounding sea of “Me!”. This brought Noah to the final ‘R’ of the three R’s: reduce. Making a small adjustment in the ways we dispose of waste can have a big impact on the health and future of the environment. Food scrap recycling not only reduces the amount of waste generated, it can create fertile soil that can be used to grow flowers and vegetables. It also provides food for worms who are essential to the fertilization process. When asked, “Who here composts at home?” many hands were raised among the crowded auditorium.
This is just the start of an educational journey for these Bronxville Elementary students. This week, Greenburgh Nature Center kicked off food scrap recycling lessons in each of the classrooms at BES. Noah sat with Ms. Kalaj’s fifth grade class on Thursday, picking up where he left off during the Be3 assembly a few weeks ago. He asked if the students noticed the new green bins in the cafeteria. One student raised her hand, “Yesterday, Emily, Grace, Ella, and I put our orange peel in the green bin!” Some of the other students laughed, and another student shared, “We have a thing with oranges in this class.” Noah talked about all kinds of food items that can go in the green colored bin. For example, sandwich crusts for those who do not like them, banana peels, chicken bones, and even Oreo cookies.
Bringing the conversation back to the third ‘R’ reduce, Noah asked the students to take a guess at how much of food gets thrown into the trash. The students thought the estimate was somewhere between 10-30%. In fact, the percentage is closer to 40%, or over a billion pounds of food. When food waste is added to non-recyclable trash, it all gets sent to a facility that uses fuel and natural gas to condense it. The students were asked what gets released into the atmosphere as it burns. “Carbon Dioxide!” they called out. “What are things in nature that take the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by absorbing it, also known as the process called carbon sequestration?” asked Noah. Several students knew of the two big ones: trees, through the process of photosynthesis, and algae that grows in oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, and moist soil.
Making the connection between how waste is disposed of, and how it is decomposed, the students learned about other life forms in nature that play an important role in the decomposition process. Some examples are mushrooms (which Noah likened to a magician), vultures, and insects such as worms, and even cockroaches. Noah brought with him one of Greenburgh Nature Center’s mascots, Charlie the Cockroach. Charlie was a popular guest amongst the elementary students, with many asking to see him up close and even hold him. Noah explained that while cockroaches are helpful in the composting process, similar to worms, they are slow workers. The large amounts of food waste generated from BES will now be composted using an off-site hauling company that will deliver it to a facility that uses machines that can more quickly decompose food waste through climate controlled temperature and humidity.
In the multipurpose room where the students have lunch, parent volunteer Maria Terjanian, was manning the three waste receptacles, and offering assistance to students when separating out their trash with the new addition of the green food waste bin. Maria, who has a child in each of the Bronxville schools, has been working together with the group of BHS students who started the food scrap recycling initiative, and BES administrators on implementing the program in the school. Seeing it come to fruition, and witnessing it in action, has been very exciting. “After only two days, there were already students who were directing others on where to put their trash,” said Ms. Terjanian. Assistant Principal Anthony Vaglica appreciates the bigger picture of the food scrap recycling program, “It is great to see so many within the school so invested in this work because of the positive impact on the environment. The students are very interested in the environment, and they understand the benefits of properly disposing of waste. My hope is that with the support of the school foundation, this will ultimately become a K-12 program and extend beyond the school and into the community.”
The program was made possible through a grant from the Bronxville School Foundation, written by high school students and BES administrators, Ms. Adams and Mr. Vaglica. "The food scrap recycling program is a very special grant for many reasons," said Helena McSherry, Executive Director of the Bronxville School Foundation. "High School students brainstormed the idea and then worked collaboratively with faculty to bring this program to Bronxville and educate our younger students about the importance of this initiative. We are very grateful to them. I can't think of a better example of students living out their commitment to the Bronxville Promise -- To Innovate, Lead, Think Critically, and Engage the World."