I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed students at South High throw plastic water bottles into our compost bins. And it drove me, as well as my peers in our environmental club, crazy. Many of the items in the lunchroom are compostable, including plates, napkins, and food scraps. It was disturbing to me to see so much compostable material being thrown in the trash, or vice versa, when it’s such an easy task with great potential to benefit our community and the world.
Fortunately we were not the only ones with the desire to reduce the waste produced in schools. In early 2015, several other South students and I began meeting through YEA!MN with students from our rival high school, Southwest, to plan a competition that would spread awareness at our schools. We established a goal: to see which school could most significantly increase the amount of compost or organics recycling, and decrease trash. We called the competition “The Garbage Games”.
While we hoped the deep-rooted rivalry between our schools would get students excited, we also developed strategies to better inform them about waste reduction. We wanted the effects of this project to reach beyond the two-week window of the competition and have lasting effects on students’ behavior.
Both schools prepared their student bodies in the weeks leading up to the competition with posters, announcements, and outreach during lunch. Although it was a good learning experience for me personally, communicating and organizing was challenging, and I still felt as though not many students noticed or cared about our efforts. Unfortunately, my same feelings carried over through our competition. Even with the adorable buttons we had made for students who sorted their waste correctly, I got the sense that few people were aware of what the competition actually was. At the end of the two weeks, the amount of trash and compost produced at South remained similar to when we started. Southwest faced some of the same challenges, but they were able to both increase compost and decrease trash more than us. They just had to beat us at something yet again!
However, I was surprised and pleased to see that South’s amount of compost was significantly greater than Southwest’s, we just didn’t end up increasing that amount much throughout the competition. I think most of our waste is sorted by our staff. Although this is really helpful, I still would like to see more students with an understanding of how to sort properly and why it’s important.
Although I can’t look at South’s results and say our goals were achieved, I learned a lot of valuable things from this experience. First of all, the hardships we faced throughout this project taught us a lot of things that could help in future, similar projects. Reaching out to students seems to be the most important thing in reducing waste at schools. In addition, this was my first time taking on more of a leadership role by organizing and coordinating with other students during the planning process. I’m really glad I got connected with YEA! MN, and I plan to stay involved in coming years. I’ve never really thought of myself as a leader, but this opportunity showed me how to use my passion for climate issues to help organize others. I look forward to further developing these skills and becoming a stronger leader.
Even though this project did not follow the course I envisioned back in January, my experience has inspired me to continue educating my peers and making a difference in my community. I am thankful to be involved in such an important movement.