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