Sunnyland Elementary now creates 80 percent less trash to meet the requirements of the Bellingham School District’s “Food to Flowers” program. The school district wants to cut costs by decreasing its total trash output.
“We could get Sunnyland to produce zero waste if everyone pitched in and did it right,” David Wilson, a custodian for Sunnyland Elementary said.
Four years ago, the school was emptying a 6-yard dumpster full of trash headed to the dump every week. Now they are emptying a 2-yard dumpster every other week.
Bellingham garbage costs $65 per month per cubic yard of space according to Rodd Pemble, recycling manager for Sanitary Service Company Inc. For a school with a 6-yard dumpster emptied twice a week, as Sunnyland Elementary was in the beginning of 2008, that is $745 per month, according to Pemble.
A 2-yard dumpster emptied every other week with the “Food to Flowers” program will save the district $5,820 per year for Sunnyland Elementary alone.
“We just started with the recycling program where we would take out the cans and bottles and stuff like that,” Wilson said. “That got us down to a 5-yard dumpster and then a 4-yard dumpster in 2009.”
The next step was called “Food to Flowers” which removed food waste from the trash. Napkins, milk cartons, paper towels and leftover food are now taken to be broken down into compost. The program began with Alderwood, Lowell and Roosevelt Elementaries in a month-long test before expanding district-wide. This program reduced these school’s was by 50 percent according to the Sanitary Services website.
Sunnyland Elementary now has one large recycling tote for aluminum, six Toter cans for compost and the 2-yard dumpster for trash instead of a 6-yard dumpster for it all.
The district plan is based on Sanitary Service’s “FoodPlus! Recycling” program focused on recycling organic waste. This is an expansion of the service that once only accepted yard waste but now takes away all compostable items, even meat and bones.
Items that were once tossed in the trash are now being reused. The custodians said that plastic used to take up a lot of garbage space.
“We get those books and magazine wrapped up in plastic and they would just go straight to the trash,” Wilson said. “Now we separate that and send it to the recycling site instead.”
Plastic bottles are made from different materials than other types of plastic. The recycling plant separates plastic into three types; bottles, hard plastic (caps and containers) and film plastics (Ziploc bags and plastic wrap) which are composed of different types of materials. The three groups are baled separately and shipped to processors that will melt the material down for purchase by plastic manufacturers to be reused.
The Sunnyland Elementary custodians now fill up a 60-gallon trash bag full of film plastics every other week.
Sunnyland Elementary is the only school in the district able to reduce their dumpster size and waste output by over 80 percent, according to Wilson. The school also has 200 more students than other elementaries in the district.
“We are the biggest little school in Bellingham with the largest green program,” said Scott Sorensen, a custodian for Sunnyland Elementary.
When the program was first introduced, Wilson researched programs for schools across the country to find what would work best. He decided that the first thing to do was break down what the school could do on its own. Wilson then began to visit Sunnyland classrooms over several weeks to educate students and teachers about what the school was trying to accomplish.
The students seemed to catch on much faster than the staff according to Sorensen.
“It was pretty difficult at first to start the [recycling and compost] programs at the school,” said Mary Anne Stuckart, Sunnyland Elementary principal. “We needed to put pictures up to show what should go in each bin and I still sometimes have to ask Dave.”
A student at the elementary took what was happening at the school home with him.
“There is a kid here that told his grandma to start packing his sandwiches in wax paper instead of in Ziploc bags because we can send the paper to compost,” Sorensen said.
The “Food to Flowers” program has yet to become part of any Sunnyland teacher’s curriculum.
“With WASL tests and science fairs to worry about, I know it’s hard for the teachers,” said Sorensen. “I think it could easily be taught as science though.”
The custodians of Sunnyland Elementary have two goals for next school year.
“We hope to get our waste level down to zero percent, or close to it, by this time next school years,” Wilson said.
A zero percent waste level means no trash is picked up and taken to the dump. In order to accomplish this, items such as metallic chip bags and Capri Sun juice boxes would have to be eliminated from the school menu.
“Another goal we have is to sort the trash from parties more,” Sorensen said. “It’s difficult to think about how to get rid of the stuff while teachers have to worry about planning the party.”
The way to solve this is to ask for trash cans to be moved into the classroom for that day, according to Sorensen. Teachers are also encouraged to use biodegradable or recyclable utensils and packaging for parties.