Schools can teach the 4th "R":  reduction

Along with "reading, writing and 'rithematic," there's a fourth "R" schools can play a key role in teaching:   reduction.

On a daily basis, American schools server 60 million students enrolled in kindergarten through college, along with school faculty and staff.

An individual student generates an estimate 160 to 240 pounds of waste per year.  That's 4.8 million to 7.2 million tons of waste nationwide -- 2.6 to 4 percent of the U.S. waste stream.

Reaching children at an early age is a good way to encourage positive environmental habits, which children take home and share with their family and others in their community.

For example, a group of first-, second-, and third-grade students at Highland Park Elementary School in Bloomington who when on a landfill field trip made some suggestions based on what they saw.  The result has been less waste in the Monroe County area.

After a teach-led discussion on how much waste individuals produce and how it can be reduced, the student wrote a letter to the school principal, asking if there were some way to eliminate the stack of discarded milk cartons produced everyday in the school cafeteria.

The principal passed the message along to the food services coordinator for Monroe County Community School Corp., who worked with a local dairy to set up a pilot project serving milk in aseptic pouches, which take up less room in landfills.

The milk pouches were tested for three days, and used pouches were kept and compared with the amount of trash used milk cartons create.   The school corporation adopted the pouches and cut its solid waste volume by a third.  Disposal costs decreased $5,000 and the pouches produced a savings of 1 cent per serving.

While at the landfill, the students also saw a large truck from a local business dumping a load of cardboard.  So they took a drawing one student made of the truck and sent it to the company, asking the company to find ways to reduce and recycle cardboard.

The children's actions send a valuable message to people who wonder what the efforts of one person or a small group can accomplish.

"I hope it makes people realize that if you ask the right questions in the right way to the right person, it can effect a change," says Jane St. John, waste reduction and recycling coordinator for the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District.  "That's what these children did, and they're making a real difference."  For more information, call Jane St. John at 812-333-3872.

Check out the cafeteria

Cafeterias are always good places to look for ways to reduce because they serve large numbers of people and often use disposable products.

General Electric's plastics division has developed an alternative to the plastic milk pouches highland park school switched to -- an eight-ounce LexanŽ plastic bottle.  The bottle is designed specifically for school lunch programs and can be reused 100 times and then recycled.

Dairies pay about 30 cents each for the Lexan bottles, versus two or three cents for standard wax cartons.  Because of washing and handling costs, a GE spokesman estimates 70 or 80 trips per bottle will be necessary for the dairies to break even.

However, the Bethlehem School District in Pennsylvania cut its waste 50 tons annually by switching to the bottle, and disposal costs went down $44,000.

When the Chappaqua Central School District in New York switched from polystyrene trays to reusable trays in its cafeterias, about $44,000 was spent on new dishwashers and reusable trays.  The switch paid for itself in two years, though, and preliminary estimates show a 50 percent reduction in trash volume.

All the same source reduction techniques that work for restaurants and other food services also work in school cafeterias.  Ask you solid waste management district for a business fact sheet and checklist on restaurants and food services.

Lessons learned

SOURCES:  Making Less Garbage, written by Bette K. Fishbein and Caroline Gelb, INFORM, New York, 1992.  "Businesses Promote School Recycling," BioCycle, October, 1992.