Caroline Anastasia and Grace Cushing ended their high school career with distinguished environmental honors.
The motivated duo, friends since fourth grade, spent their senior year researching, funding and creating a food waste composting system at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H.
The program, which targeted cafeteria food waste, not only earned the pair the “Innovative Recycling Idea of the Year” award from the School Recycling Club (the CLUB) of Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA), it diverted seven tons of organic material from going to the local landfill in 14 weeks.
“We both wanted to help and make a difference and we’re really happy with how it went,” says Anastasia. The girls’ efforts have also garnered them two additional notable awards including the Eco Maine Sustainability award and the Aquarian Water Environmental Champion award.
After attending an Advanced Studies program at St. Paul’s School in Concord, the girls decided to channel their sustainability knowledge into their senior seminar project. They originally hoped to create a compost pile on their school site but public policy would have made that challenging, if not impossible.
They didn’t want to give up on the idea so they engaged the help of local transfer stations, a composting hauling company and a nearby school, Oyster River High School, which had its own fledgling food waste program.
By collaborating with teachers and staff, and obtaining permission, they wrote a grant and received funding from school supporters. They lined up a vendor and rallied the student body to support the program. In a few short months, their program was up and running.
“There would be good days when the kids would separate all their stuff and there would be horrible days when they wouldn’t separate it well,” says Anastasia. “We had to sit by the trash cans every single day. People started calling us ‘Trash Girls’—not in a mean way.
“It kind of stunk for us because it was senior year and we had to spend every single one of our lunches monitoring the trash cans,” she says. “We knew it was worth it because we were making a difference, but it was challenging.”
If they had to do it over again, the girls says they would first implement the program at the elementary school.
“I feel like kids that age are more open to change and more adaptable,” Anastasia says. “If they start at a young age (third through fifth grade), they are more likely to carry it on as they get to high school. They are old enough to understand but not too old to think they’re too cool to compost.”
Anastasia and Cushing were recognized by the NRRA for their inspiration and motivation, says Mark Richardson, NRRA Trustee and Hampton Transfer Station Manager. Richardson worked closely with the girls and nominated them for the NRRA award.
“I’ve been here since 2000 and for seniors at Winnacunnet High School have come over and asked me all kinds of questions about recycling and then they write a paper as their senior seminar,” Richardson says. “Grace and Caroline were very different.”
He says they persevered at every turn. They met with their science teacher, administrators, cafeteria workers, the school board and even secured $2,200 from the Friends of Winnacunnet Foundation to pay for liners, which cost $1.11 each, and composting services.
“They did all the work and that’s what impressed me,” he says. “Here were two girls who, for the first time, actually did a project for their senior seminar. They were getting ready to graduate and they got this done.”
Both recent graduates intend to pursue sustainability causes. Cushing will attend Tulane University in New Orleans this fall and plans to major in environmental science. Anastasia will attend University of Connecticut and study chemistry with the ultimate goal of working to create more environmentally-friendly food packaging.