If the St. Vrain Valley Schools were a city, its student and staff population of more than 38,000 would put it among the 25 largest in the state. As with any population this size, resource stewardship is important both fiscally and environmentally.
Laurel Mattrey, St. Vrain’s Energy and Sustainability Manager, shares that school district leadership supports making investments and implementing programs that set a positive example around resource conservation, especially when there is an opportunity to get students involved through service-learning and scientific process. “Greening up the schools” through waste reduction programs is a priority for Mattrey.
Western serves all 60 schools and administrative buildings with recycling and trash collection, meticulously tracking their waste generation and recycling diversion rates. The average recycling rate for all locations is 34%, which is on par with the national average. But a closer look at the top performers shows some impressive results; nearly 50% of the locations exceed the national average, the top 25% exceed a 43% recycling rate, and the top school boasts an impressive 58% recycling rate.
Not surprisingly, cafeterias are major source of waste. An obvious and worthwhile target is to move from disposables to reusables. The district has been switching to reusable trays and flatware in cafeterias. The upfront investment is ultimately recouped in savings from ending the purchase of disposables, keeping tens of thousands of food service items out of the landfill and saving money as well.
A more pernicious and vexing cafeteria waste stream is of course, food. Finding innovative ways to redistribute and manage uneaten food is an opportunity that St. Vrain is beginning to address in earnest.
A food-sharing initiative has been implemented district-wide. Also known as “Share Tables,” these are places where students can place unopened food and drinks such as whole fruit, packaged food and cartons of milk, to be consumed by other students. This form of food rescue has been backed by the US Department of Agriculture and is a win-win; food waste is reduced, and nation-wide studies show the practice makes a measurable impact on child hunger.
Then there is the issue of all the food that can’t be shared. “To manage the food scraps and uneaten food that cannot be redistributed due to health regulations,” says Mattrey, “composting is methodically being put in place in schools”. Compostables collection is being piloted in 15 schools through a comprehensive waste reduction and diversion program known as Green Star Schools, a zero-waste education program brought to the schools by the education arm of local non-profit Eco-Cycle. Students receive classroom presentations on recycling, composting, waste reduction and other environmental topics. They learn to think critically about resource use in their daily lives and put their learning into practice at school and, ideally, at home. Green Star schools are primarily at the elementary school level; the idea being that reaching kids with key concepts early is more effective than trying to change behaviors after they are ingrained.
Waste diversion is not a “one and done” effort in a school system, notes Mattrey. Sustainable waste reduction and diversion requires administrative support, a properly trained and resourced custodial program and consistent, ongoing student and staff education. With willing school administrators, district support and great partners, “we’re well positioned to move the needle on resource conservation” says Mattrey.