WEST SEATTLE — Two 8th grade boys armed with blue plastic gloves stand behind a row of bins, waiting for the post-lunch rush.
“We have to be really quick with all the students coming at us all at once,” says 14-year-old Matthew Burckhard.
The onslaught begins.
A girl makes a move to dump her uneaten pasta in the trash. Just in time, Burckhard directs her to the compost bin. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches another student tossing a plastic packet of salad dressing in with the compost.
He sighs and fishes it out.
Burckhard is on the Denny International Middle School’s garbage patrol — making sure his classmates put cafeteria waste in the right place.
He’s been on duty since October and has seen a big change.
“People used to just throw everything in the garbage cans,” Burckhard says. “Some still don’t do it right, but it’s a lot better.”
Last fall, each lunch period produced 10 bags of trash. Now, it’s down to an average of two bags per lunch period. With three lunch periods a day, that amounts to 24 fewer bags of garbage ending up in a landfill. And over the course of an entire year, that’s a reduction of 4,320 bags of garbage.
The lunchtime composting at Denny International was started by the school’s Green Team, formed last fall by Loan Nguyen, 14, Iman Shukri, 13, and Symphony Stelivan, 14. The team made composting and recycling their first order of business after learning about the effects of garbage in science class.
“People should compost because otherwise our world will end up under this big pile of garbage,” Stelivan said.
The green team collected signatures and petitioned the principal to start cafeteria composting. Within weeks the bins were in place.
But it took a little longer for the student body to follow the new rules.
“At first not a lot of people were excited about composting,” Nguyen said. “So we had to bribe them with an ice cream challenge.”
The green team developed a competition by which each grade level earns points for how well they separate their lunch waste. Whichever grade earns the most points at the end of the tally period wins an ice cream party.
“People are influenced by peer pressure and they just need a role model,” Nguyen said.
Shukri agreed, adding, “It’s not that hard to compost and recycle correctly. I think people are just lazy.”
With 8th grade graduation just around the corner, the three girls have already started to plan for the Green Team’s future.
“Don’t you dare stop,” Nguyen warned younger Denny International students. “We’ll just be across the bridge. We can come over and check on you to make sure you’re still composting.”
For their accomplishments in waste-reduction, Denny International has been awarded green school status by Washington Green Schools, a non-profit organization that helps students take action to create greener, healthier schools. Across Washington are now 213 green schools.
Washington Green Schools is part of a growing national network of green school programs. A similar organization exists in Oregon, called Oregon Green Schools.