UPDATE: A Beautiful Way to Use Milk Cartons

LOS ANGELES - Raymond Avenue Elementary in South Central Los Angeles has been mistaken for a park, thanks to the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) Cartons to Compost initiative.

Under the two-year-old program, about 200 tons of school lunch milk cartons from 240 schools have been turned into compost and used to help plant trees around city schools, says Debbi Dodson, California environmental coordinator for Tetra Pak, a milk carton manufacturer.

"Milk cartons constitute 7 percent of a school's waste stream, but they're a very visible part of the waste stream, so they're good to target," she says, noting that California schools are required to help meet the state's year 2000 50 percent waste diversion mandate. "This program teaches the kids something concrete about being good to the environment - it extends the classroom into the lunchroom."

Following lunch, students empty their milk cartons and place them in a separate garbage can, Dodson says. The cartons are bagged and taken to a transfer station, then move on to the Bradley Landfill, Sun Valley, Calif., where they are blended with green waste and transferred to a San Joaquin, Calif., composting plant.

At a formal ceremony in June, Raymond Avenue principal Victor Kimbell and his students and faculty, along with the LAUSD superintendent and other school and city officials, spread some of the compost around campus. Eventually, about 100 trees will adorn the area, which sits a block from where riots occurred after the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

Another initiative, Proposition BB, passed by Los Angeles city voters in 1997, calls for $2.4 billion-worth of repairs to the city's more than 600 schools. About 30 percent of the money funds the Greening Program, which provides landscaping and greenery to campuses, according to Guillermo Aguilar, Proposition BB Greening Program coordinator.

Raymond Avenue, the first school to benefit from Proposition BB, now has 30 percent of its 4 acres covered with grass, as well as a new playground, trees, new sprinklers and paving.

Eventually, Dodson hopes to compost the entire cafeteria waste stream. But in the meantime, the milk cartons are making a difference at Raymond Avenue, says principal Kimbell.

"The more we train our kids early on to participate in any recycling, the better off we are going to be," he says. "This doesn't just benefit the school; it benefits the world."