Lunchtime Lessons

Trash cans, recycling bins and plastic bags were not enough for elementary school teacher Peter Hubbard. He was looking for something extra — a few teachers, a custodian and a group of enthusiastic students. With the help of a parent, Hubbard initiated a food waste recycling program at Lawton Elementary School in Seattle that is helping his young students tackle an old problem.

“We're doing all this environmental stuff in the classroom, talking about big issues, endangered species, global warming and yet this incredible garbage thing is going on everyday right under their noses,” Hubbard says. “If you can't do something about that, then how can you do something about these much bigger problems?”

The program, although a new idea for Lawton students, is not a new idea at all. More than 10 years ago, Hubbard began a similar program at another school to allow kids to “get in and grapple with the whole waste problem.” While teaching at Lawton, the 20-year teaching veteran estimated that more than 50 pounds of recyclable materials were being disposed of during lunchtime. Considering the number of schools in the Seattle area, Hubbard further estimated that about 1.5 million tons of recyclable materials were being disposed of at the city's schools.

“We're all doing these little individual acts that seem like no big deal but when you start multiplying it out over all the people in the city and the country and the world, it turns into this astronomical problem,” Hubbard says.

During the school's three lunch periods students act as trash monitors to make sure their classmates toss their trash into the designated bins. The lunchroom has two disposal stations, each equipped with a blue recycling bin and special composting bags to break down food. Hubbard says that students have become “little trash cops,” ready to correct anyone that throws trash in the wrong bin. While fourth graders are the main participants in the program, all 300 students at Lawton have the opportunity to contribute.

Working with local solid waste company, Rabanco, a subsidiary of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste, and the district's head of recycling, Hubbard hopes to expand the program to other school districts. The pilot program at Lawton allows Hubbard to determine the actual cost and amount of work involved. But, most importantly, Hubbard has witnessed the educational experience the Lawton students have gained from the project. “What I think is sort of powerful about all of this is you have the opportunity to give kids a daily, repetitive experience with being responsible about their trash,” Hubbard says.