Talking Trash with Jacqueline Omania

Jacqueline Omania and her third grade students.

Last school year, before the words “global pandemic” were part of every conversation I had, I embarked on an ambitious and sadly ill-fated mission to eliminate landfill waste from my 1st grade classroom. Nowadays, I would give anything to just be able to teach in a real classroom again.  However, I’m also trying to see this situation as a chance to start fresh, to reevaluate some of the practices that are so deeply ingrained in elementary school culture. The shiny new plastic-encased markers. The individual plastic-robed glue sticks. The squeezable tubes of yogurt. The list goes on. 

Whenever I do get the opportunity to return to my classroom, I want to do things differently, and there’s no better person to talk to about my aspirations than Jacqueline Omania, the inspirational teacher behind the Zero Waste Classroom Project and winner of the 2019 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. 

What is a zero waste classroom?

  1. It tries to make no landfill trash. 
  2. It tries not to use plastic– we use real forks, spoons, and cups. 
  3. It tries to recycle and compost.
  4. It practices rethinking, reusing, and refusing. 
  5. It practices and studies about being a sustainable person. 

Why do you make your classroom zero waste?

Once I got informed about plastic recycling not really happening, I didn’t want to participate in that anymore. So I shared it with my kids. 

Having done a zero waste classroom for the fifth year now- I feel it completely inspires all my students. 

They can connect, they can make changes and see and measure it. They know the world has great challenges, but they are empowered daily with the desire to learn more and the ability to make a difference.

What have been the biggest challenges to going zero waste?

It’s not as much as you would expect. The trick is to get the kids onboard, to make it theirs. Make them feel like it’s reachable for them. It’s a matter of intention. You try to be intentional to make the least waste you can. It’s definitely a process–it took 5 years to get there. 

My obstacles are things that come from school. For example, all our math [materials] come wrapped in plastic. I’m required for them to use whiteboard markers when I teach math.

Students opt for reusable cups, water bottles, utensils, and more.

What surprised you about this project? 

In any moment it could be destroyed, but it wasn’t. The kids embraced it on a deeper level, naturally, without a lot of force. They all wanted to do this, to do their part. Kids feel so powerless in the world. For them to know there’s a concrete way they can make a difference. [that] what they’re doing is worthy [and[ they have a role in the world–they really want that. They’re so proud, so bold. They impress me so much. 

What kinds of impacts or changes have you seen in your students since starting this project? 

They’re more engaged with their writing in general. They’re often writing their speeches [for press conferences]. They’re engaged because they know it’s going to have a purpose. With math, they’re doing multiplication and division for each trash audit. They’re super engaged with their learning. 

I’ve had really positive feedback from parents. [They’re] so proud of their children for being advocates for the environment. 

We’re stronger as a community together. This had a ripple effect around our school. I opened up the Ocean Club for the whole school–all their friends came. The other kids wanted to know about it and talk about it. Now we have 45 kids coming. 

Omania’s students saved all their landfill waste for the entire school year.

Where do you go from here?

My vision would be to empower every kid to get on board. If you set up everything with a Kindergarten cohort on board, you’re set. 

More teachers need to be doing this, but we need the education piece for people to care. I’m hoping to create staff developments about this in a different way. Not telling teachers what to do, but showing them what we do. 

It’s more than the materials–it’s parent education. More education to not buy those school supplies. They don’t need their own stuff. I think we all just need to share more. We’re constantly buying and dumping. We have so much excess, and we just need to redistribute all that. We have to rethink the way we are together, and the amount of stuff we have. 

Learn more about the Zero Waste Classroom Project with these videos:

Trash Tales https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPctIgZ3eYM

Trash Tales Results https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWykO9lBnNM

Little Voices for Big Change in Berkeley https://www.upstreamsolutions.org/videos/little-voices-for-big-change-in-berkeley

Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet

Nanette Heffernan’s famous trash suit, created entirely out of single-use disposables from school lunches.

Have you ever wondered how much trash you produce in a day? How about a whole lunchroom of elementary school students? Nanette Heffernan, author of the newly-published children’s book Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet, became curious about this question while working as a lunchroom volunteer at her children’s elementary school about a decade ago. She conducted a trash audit, meticulously counting every chip and plastic bag in the trash for a week. 

“I told the principal, if you support waste-free lunch, I’ll do it for another week, and I’ll make a hat,” said Heffernan. Within the first day, the hat was complete, and it quickly grew into a suit because there was just so much trash. 

For Heffernan, what started out as a somewhat facetious challenge, soon morphed into an iconic and highly-impactful visual reminder of the astonishing amount of waste produced by school lunches every day. Ten years later, Heffernan continues to don her trash suit at school assemblies, festivals, and other educational events to draw attention to the environmental impact of single-use disposables. “Your first breath you laugh, then you pause, and then you react,” she said. 

Educating children (and “their grown-ups,” as Heffernan likes to say) about how to reduce waste is just one part of Heffernan’s work as a sustainability consultant. Her new book, Earth Hour, aims to reach an even wider audience of children who are looking for ways to get involved in protecting the planet. Earth Hour is a global environmental movement sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. This year, Earth Hour takes place on Saturday, March 28. Wherever you are on the planet, at 8:30pm on March 28, you shut your lights off for the hour as a pledge of what you’re going to do for the environment for the rest of the year. “It’s not about how much energy you save in that hour,” says Heffernan. She likens the event to Valentine’s Day. “We love each other year-round, but we go out of our way to show it on Valentine’s Day. It’s the same for Earth Hour.” 

Heffernan emphasizes that participating in Earth Hour is a way for people of all ages to get involved in a tangible way. “Kids have so many rules,” says Heffernan, noting that children are often told they have to go to bed at a certain time, eat their vegetables, do their homework, and more. “It’s easy for a child to feel overwhelmed when you hear these stories about climate change. They think, ‘What can I do, I’m only 7?’  You can participate [in Earth Hour] when you’re 7, and you don’t need permission.”

Above all, Heffernan hopes that her book inspires optimism. “[Kids] have so much power in their little hands to make a difference. With that finger they can turn off the light, with that hand they can turn off the water, they can say ‘no thank you’ to single-use plastic. Whatever their pledge is, it makes a huge impact,” said Heffernan. 

Earth Hour: A Lights-Out Event for Our Planet is available from Charlesbridge Publishing at most independent local bookstores, as well as some Barnes & Noble stores.  

Check out https://www.earthhour.org/ for information about Earth Hour gatherings and events near you. 

Follow Nanette Heffernan at https://nanetteheffernan.com/, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

Zero Waste Classroom Challenge Week 3 Update 

We are three weeks into the challenge, and just one week away from when we will say sayonara to our landfill bin. Here’s a rundown of where we stand at this juncture.

Landfill inventory

We have continued to monitor and chart everything that ends up in our landfill bin. By far the most common items continue to be food wrappers. Both foil-lined wrappers and soft plastic wrappers are frequent finds. Another common item has been adhesive backs, which are the slippery little pieces of white shiny paper that come on the back of stickers and adhesives, such as Command hooks and stickers.

 

A Challenge

A lot of the trash that is being generated is coming from kids’ lunches/snacks, which they don’t have a ton of control over. We have been actively encouraging kids to talk with their families about packing less single-use items in their lunches, AND we understand that this can be a hard sell for families who are already super busy and stressed. Which brings us to….

The Zero Waste Classroom Challenge One Change Pledge

             

Since we have not seen much reduction in our landfill trash simply from tracking it and charting it daily, we decided to invite kids to make a pledge to change just one small thing that will help us get closer to our goal of being a zero waste classroom. They had some great ideas, including making popcorn at home rather than buying it in individual bags, eating dinner leftovers for lunch the next day, and making art out of foil and plastic wrappers rather than throwing them away. A few well-intentioned kids had the idea of unwrapping their granola bars at home before bringing them to school so they wouldn’t have to throw the wrapper away at school, which led to an interesting discussion about how we are actually trying to eliminate landfill waste everywhere, not just in our classroom.

TBD whether these pledges will make a dent in our numbers. Fingers crossed!

What about the teachers?

We recognize that we have a big role to play in this challenge as well, as we are the ones making all the purchases for classroom supplies and materials. Here are a few of the changes/improvements we have implemented since starting the Zero Waste Classroom Challenge:

The question we continue to struggle with is: Is it better to replace perfectly usable but non-recyclable/compostable items that we already have with more eco-friendly ones, or wait until we use them up before replacing them? We’ve decided on a hybrid approach. For items that we use all the time, we opted to replace them and to donate our unused supplies to other classrooms or offices. This feels a bit like we’re just passing the buck so it becomes someone else’s problem, but the reality is that most teachers aren’t trying to go zero waste right now and will end up just buying more Elmer’s glue, Scotch tape, etc., so we might as well give them ours to use rather than tossing it out. For items that we use less often, like markers, we are choosing to use them up and then replace them with more earth-friendly alternatives as needed. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but it seems like a decent compromise for now.

Launch!

The Zero Waste Classroom Challenge is officially launched! My co-teacher, Vicki, and I wanted to have an exciting “hook” for introducing the challenge, so we turned to our old friend Phoebe the Phoenix, a Big Bird-like character who is the mascot of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Phoebe visited our school in the fall to teach the students about recycling and composting, so she was the perfect individual to issue the challenge. We decided to have Phoebe write a letter to the students with all the details.

After reading the letter aloud to the class, more than half the class raised their hands, eager to comment and ask questions. I thought they had grasped the concept pretty well until one boy raised his hand and said, “Wait. I don’t get it.” Oops. Time to backup and explain things a little better!

We then proceeded to spend a good amount of time breaking down the term “zero waste,” which led to a discussion of what exactly happens to our trash after we throw it in the bins in our classroom. It was a question that many students seemed to have never considered–most seemed to think it simply vanishes into thin air! Next thing I knew we were deep into a conversation about what exactly a landfill is. Pictures were shown. Terms such as “biodegrade,” “leeching,” and “toxic gas” were bandied about. Some kids still didn’t get it. Maybe we should take a field trip to the local dump?

Despite their shaky understanding of trash’s final resting place, the students did seem quite concerned about how much trash goes to landfills (in San Francisco alone, 1200 tons of garbage is carted off to landfill each day– that’s 800 Toyota Priuses!). They were overflowing (like the landfill!) with ideas about how to avoid sending trash to landfill. One student suggested she could just take her granola bar wrappers home and put them in a box (for future art projects) instead of throwing them away. Now this is the kind of innovative thinking we need! And I’m sure her parents will be thrilled by their new home decor. In all seriousness, though, they did have many great ideas, including not taking plastic produce bags at the grocery store (try reusable ones instead!).

We also started monitoring and tracking our class’s landfill waste at the end of each day. This week we just kept a tally of all the different items we found in there each day, and next week we plan to turn this data into a more visually-appealing graph. This week’s biggest offender was…..food wrappers! Yes, those kings-of-convenience (I’m looking at you, seaweed pouches!) stop looking so convenient when they are destined to spend the next 5,000-odd years festering in a landfill.

A theme that came up again and again throughout this first week was the idea of better vs. best alternatives. For example, recycling a plastic water bottle is better than throwing it in the landfill, but the best option is to forgo the plastic bottle altogether and use a reusable one instead. Similarly, using a paper bag is better than using a plastic one, but the best option is to use a reusable cloth bag. Which brings us to an important zero waste philosophy: Going zero waste is not about perfection. It’s about getting better compared to ourselves. It is nearly impossible to truly eliminate ALL non-compostable/non-recyclable/non-reusable materials from your life. The goal is simply to become more conscious of the decisions we make on a daily basis and to make changes and improvements wherever we can. In the wise words of Dr. Seuss, Progress is progress, no matter how small (OK fine, I may have taken some artistic liberties, there… apologies to Horton).

So, where to next? Well, as Phoebe instructed, we will take the month of January to learn more about zero waste and really start paying attention to our class’s waste stream. We will continue to do daily landfill inventories, and, once trends start to emerge, we will work on brainstorming reusable alternatives for our most pesky landfill items. Come February, the challenge really begins as we will bid farewell to our classroom landfill bin. All items that can’t be reused, recycled, or composted will be placed in a clear jar and kept until the end of the school year. The goal is to keep that jar as empty as possible! As classroom supplies run out, we will replace them with the least-wasteful alternatives we can find.

Around mid-May we plan to wrap things up with a big Zero Waste Celebration. Will we succeed in limiting our landfill trash to one single jar? Will we make Phoebe proud? Only time will tell. Whatever happens, you can read about it here: the good, the bad, and the toxic gas. ‘Til next week!

Zero Waste Classroom Challenge

I pride myself on living a pretty “green” life and having a relatively low carbon footprint. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, I am a member of a local CSA, I drive a Prius, and I always bring my reusable produce bags and shopping bags to the farmers market or store. I even purchase carbon offsets for long distance travel and recently bought a GuppyFriend bag to stop microplastics from entering the oceans when I wash my clothes. So when I started reading Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, I was expecting to feel pretty smug, and I wasn’t expecting to make many major changes to my daily life. It didn’t take long for me to realize, though, that there is MUCH more I can do to reduce my impact on the planet. Specifically, there is a lot of room for improvement in my work life, aka in my classroom. So, with this in mind, I will be engaging my students in a Zero Waste Classroom Challenge in 2019.

Why do it?

  • Better for the planet
  • Modeling sustainable behavior for kids, which they will hopefully then pass on to their families and spheres of influence
  • Saves money
  • Can eventually eliminate large bulky trash can, thus creating more space in our classroom

What we’re already doing:

  • Using cloth dish towels instead of paper towels to dry hands
  • Using scratch paper for art, drawing, book marks, tests, worksheets, etc.
  • Investing in higher quality materials (e.g. folders, book boxes, supply bags) and reusing them every year rather than buying new sets for each class
  • Sourcing used items for flexible seating (thank you Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Nextdoor!)
  • Recycling dried out markers through the Crayola Color Cycle program
  • Encouraging students to bring snack/lunch in reusable containers
  • Book hospital- repairing broken/torn books rather than replacing them
  • Thinking twice before printing (Can I submit a form electronically? Can I take a picture of it on my phone instead of printing it?)
  • Using old Tupperware/food containers for math manipulatives, science projects, etc. rather than buying new
  • Donating old materials/rugs/furniture instead of throwing them out (offer first to other teachers in the building, then to the public) and the opposite: asking others for something we need before buying it
  • Laminating posters I will reuse every year, writing on both sides of chart paper, and only tearing off the exact size I need from a new sheet of chart paper
  • Using the library as much as possible to avoid buying new books
  • Opening curtains and shades to maximize natural light and avoid turning on the overhead lights (this has the added benefit of lowering stress and keeping kids calm)

What I want to do in the future:

  • Not buy a class set of math workbooks each year. Instead, I will buy one master copy and make copies of the pages we actually need/will use (also helps with storage/resource management!).
  • Replace plastic markers with crayon, then recycle the unusable remnants with the Crayon Initiative
  • Use compostable unpainted pencils like these
  • Eliminate (or reduce as much as possible) Amazon or online deliveries– buy local and without packaging
  • Stop getting Scholastic Book Order fliers– shop online only

Over the next 6 months, I will be documenting our Zero Waste Classroom journey here on the blog. Be sure to subscribe to receive all the latest news and updates and to follow along on our journey.

And, of course, I want to hear from you! Have you tried reducing your classroom’s waste stream? What has worked and what hasn’t? Any words of wisdom? Let me know on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email!