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Cunninham Elementary Second Place Winner - Best Green School Program
Cunningham Elementary School
Milton, MA

How do you lose 43lbs in a week? Students at Cunningham Elementary school in Milton, MA discovered the answer during National Green Week, when all 21 classrooms took part in a competition to see which class could make the least amount of snack trash (or non-recyclables) over the course of the week of March 23-27.

Joining schools across the country as part of National Green Week students diverted 43lbs of snack trash from the dumpster to recycling, not to mention the many pounds that never needed to be thrown away as students switched to reusable containers and snacks with reduced packaging.

Educating all 475 students about why it’s important to make less trash by reducing, reusing, recycling and repairing more involved fifty-six parent volunteers giving each class two interactive presentations, one before and one after National Green Week. Students learnt that on average, each person in Massachusetts produces 4lbs of trash daily and they discovered where trash goes next: either to landfill, where it produces the greenhouse gas methane, or as in Milton’s case, to be incinerated for energy, a process which produces air pollution and toxic ash. They also discussed the time and materials saved through recycling as well as the financial benefits. The town pays ten times as much to haul away a ton of trash as it does to haul away a ton of recycling. In addition, recycling earns the town money: last year the town received over $105,000 for recycled paper alone.

Green lessons involved a ‘recycling 101’ and there were some surprises for both adults and children in what could or couldn’t be recycled. For example, empty foil drinks pouches and juice boxes can both be recycled along with plastics and glass recycling.Previously, only paper and card had been recycled at the school, but during Green Week, students were careful to separate everything recyclable from the rest of the snack trash, taking it to the wheeled recycling bins or ‘toters’ in the hallways. Second grader Jack Ridge opted for recyclable snack containers for Green Week and at back home asked his mom, Suzanne Martin, why she had previously only ‘packed him trash’ for snack!

  • Reducing is an even more effective way to cut waste than recycling and fifth grader Colin Keally’s goal for Green Week was to generate neither trash nor recyclables. He was aiming for reuse only! Mother Mary Keally says his new-found knowledge influenced the whole family. They switched to reusable water bottles, bulk buying only and no longer using baggies.  As an unexpected bonus, Colin spent time ‘thinking of new and healthier snacks- one of the benefits of not buying the prepackaged ones’.

  • Many students already had plastic or steel water bottles and learnt that reducing the need to buy bottled drinks by having a reusable bottle is better than recycling because it saves huge amounts of materials and energy both in production and transportation. Reusing can also be fun, as students found out when they did an eco-craft during the Green Week lessons. Kindergartner's made felt flower pencils stuck into reused lemon juice bottles. Older grades used permanent markers and discarded tile samples to make ‘eco-coasters’! Almost all craft materials came from Extras for Creative Learning  in Dorchester, where businesses and institutions donate excess and outdated stock that would otherwise be destined for the landfill. The idea clearly caught on with the students who are now seeing certain trash as potential treasures. At home, Mandy Donovan’s children have started saving finished cereal boxes and other containers for future craft projects.

  • Every day throughout National Green Week, classes weighed and recorded their snack trash and snack recycling. At the end of the week, these figures were added up and divided by the number of students in each class to determine the weight of non-recyclable snack trash generated per student per week.

For Kindergarten teacher Caitlin Doering, the benefit of her students learning about trash and recycling is that it shows them that ‘what they are learning in school has real world application beyond the walls of Cunningham, and help(s) them feel responsible for their community’. One day during National Green Week, Suzanne Martin was out walking with her two children when, to her surprise, ‘instead of wanting to jump on the wall, both of my kids wanted to pick up trash from the park!’

On Friday April 17, at a whole school assembly, Principal Chris Gerber announced the Green Week winners. Rina Chen’s 5th grade class produced a mere 0.63 ounces of trash (non recyclables) per student over the course of the five days. Close behind them were Tina Walsh’s 3rd grade class and Josh Coben’s 5thgrade class, tying at 0.75 ounces per student for the week. Measured by weight, all 3 classes were generating more recycling than trash during Green Week. For Coben’s class this represented an impressive 86% reduction in snack trash over the previous week.

Each of the 19 first-place students was presented with green goodies, including a reusable bag, organic T-shirt, and spruce tree donated by Whole Foods, as well as a reusable water bottle from National Green Week.

National Green Week at Cunnigham Elementary School Milton, MA

As well as praising all students for their sterling efforts, Principal Gerber acknowledged the help of parents, teachers and building staff, in particular janitor Steve Barry, for bringing the project to fruition and expressed the hope that everyone would keep doing their part to minimize trash and maximize recycling. In her words, Green Week was ‘a wonderful learning event that is helping our entire community to identify some existing habits and to learn how to change them for the good of ourselves, our school, and the larger community’.

Sure enough, since Green Week, change has been steadily making its way through the community, as students become teachers.  One night, replacing her daughter's empty tissue box with a full one, Martin heard her kindergartner pop up from bed and say, ‘Mom, make sure you recycle that!’