Saturday, October 20, 2007

It's easy being green at this school

By Patrice Relerford, Star Tribune

Orono Intermediate School's cafeteria buzzed with activity as students formed two lines on opposite sides of a stainless steel countertop and sorted food, paper napkins and plastic bottles from their tray into color-coded bins.

As a fail-safe, 10-year-old Michael Winkey and other "green team" members stood nearby waiting to grab "the claw." It's a metal clamp students use to pluck items placed in the wrong bins.

"How exciting is it to watch a trash can?" said Orono School District food services director Kris Diller of the student, staff and parent volunteers. "But they were excited and we felt like we had the support right from the beginning."

Orono purchased the bins, the stainless steel counter top and, yes, the claws with a $19,600 grant from the Hennepin County Waste Abatement Incentive Fund.

It also bought biodegradeable trash can liners and more biodegradeable paper products, and is paying for weekly organics waste removal pickups.

All of the district's elementary and secondary schools eventually will participate in the program.

"We've been putting a lot of effort into organics for the past five years," said John Jaimez , coordinator of Hennepin County's organics recycling program.

The launch of Orono's program and three others -- in Brooklyn Center, Edina and Wayzata school districts -- means eight west Hennepin County school districts now recycle organics.

Organics include food scraps and food-soiled paper products, such as napkins, cardboard, brown paper bags and milk cartons, that can be mixed with a heating agent such as manure and eventually turned into compost.

'It's a chicken and the egg thing'

Orono's more than 2,648 students and staff members produce tons of cafeteria waste each year. But this year "we're already seeing less trash," Diller said.

Since the organics program launched, Diller said more than two-thirds of the waste at the intermediate and elementary school is recycled as organics or co-mingled paper. Diller also said trash pickups are now scheduled once a week instead of three times per week.

As part of the changeover, Orono's food service staff has swapped some items such as plastic soup bowls for biodegradable paper substitutes and replaced individually wrapped condiments with ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise dispensers.

Orono City Council Member Lili McMillan said the city of Orono launched its residential organics recycling program in May. Three other west metro cities -- Medina, Minnetonka and Wayzata -- launched organics programs earlier.

"My hope is that the schoolchildren will continue doing this at home," McMillan said. "It's a chicken and the egg thing."

Getting the hang of it

Earlier this school year, Orono teachers and administrators and college students from the University of Minnesota taught the students the difference between organics and regular recyclables such as plastic water bottles.

Jaimez said Orono's organics loads have been mostly "clean." He said Resource Recovery Technologies' Dakota County compost facility allows up to 10 percent contaminants.

Recently, Michael Winkey kept one eye on the recycling center as he talked about lunchtime. "The first few days everyone made mistakes, but now they've mostly got the hang of it," he said.

Alexis Mac Art, age 11, said she's thought about how landfills contribute to global warming, and she wants to keep more trash out of them.

Besides, "I think it's kind of fun," Alexis said -- and "it's helping the environment."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395

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