For a group of students at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill, the chief complaint in the cafeteria wasn’t about the food. It was about where that food was going at the end of the lunch period.
It was bad enough when all that food and trash was going to a landfill, but when the Orange County landfill closed last year, a lot of trucks were burning a lot of gas hauling the school’s trash out of town. A group of students who called themselves the Trash Terminators had a better idea.
“We decided to reduce trash so there’d be less pollution created because there’d be less shipment of materials going to the landfill,” said Rohan Deshpande, now an eighth-grader at Phillips. He and two schoolmates launched a recycling program in the cafeteria, reducing liquid and recyclable waste by 80 percent. The project won first place in Siemens’ “We Can Change the World” Challenge.
But there was more world-changing and waste-reducing to be done, and that has been this year’s project for the Trash Terminators.
Trash Terminators 2.0 has made composting its priority for this school year. As students leave the cafeteria, they leave wrapped, uneaten food on a “Giving Table,” then proceed to a bin to dump liquids (which weigh down recycling and compost bins); a recycling bin for cans and milk cartons; trash for plastic utensils, ketchup packets and other items that can’t be recycled; and lastly to a compost bin for food, paper and even the cafeteria trays, which are now made of compostable material.
“We saw a trash audit that showed that 55 percent of our trash is compostable,” said Trash Terminator Quentin Sieredzki, “so even if we were diverting 25 percent, we found that if we started composting we could take out a big chunk and make our school a lot more green and ecofriendly.”
Rohan said “it took a little work” to get students to successfully sort their trash, but the Trash Terminators – eighth-graders Vincent Chen, Elizabeth Farmer and Graeme Zimmermann as well as Rohan and Quentin – and some parent and student volunteers were on hand early on to correct mistakes and offer help.
“We had gloves on and we call it Dumpster diving,” Rohan said of when something needed to be fished out of compost. “We just make sure that the student knows what they did wrong, and they won’t do it next time.”
The effort has won first-place in the Lexus Eco Challenge, which asks middle school and high school teams to identify an environmental problem and take steps to solve it, and it also has earned attention from local and state officials eager to hear more about how composting can help the planet and save money ( see box).
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system’s new sustainability coordinator, Dan Schnitzer, said he was impressed by the Trash Terminators when he heard about their work upon taking the job last fall.
“I was really impressed to see the holistic approach that they took to it,” he said. “It wasn’t just ‘Hey, we want to do composting and we’re going to put out a bin and figure it out from there.’ It was data collection and understanding the ramifications of composting on the school, what does it mean for how the lunch period runs, what does it mean for the work of the custodial staff, what are the ramifications for the city and the town and how much gas are town trucks saving from hauling all of our garbage?”
The Trash Terminators, advised by Phillips social studies teacher Ed Baruch, are happy to have cut down on waste at their school, but one of their goals from the get-go was to spread the project to other schools in the district. And that’s another goal they can check off their list.
Four schools in the system are composting waste now, and the goal, Schnitzer said, is to have the majority of the schools composting by the end of this school year. Throughout the district, school cafeterias have switched from Styrofoam trays to paper-based trays that are compostable.
“We’re just so proud of their work,” said Schnitzer, who said the Trash Terminators have done “99.9 percent” of the work in establishing and maintaining Phillips’ composting program. “And while we support what they’ve done, we also let them know that it doesn’t end here. There’s lots more work to be done and we’re happy to be part of that journey with them.”