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By John Myers, Forum Communications Co., Published November 30 2009

School lunchrooms are learning to go green

ESKO, Minn. – When Esko’s Girl Scouts troop checked during Earth Week this year to see how much waste was heading out of their school’s lunchroom, the numbers were enough to make any lunch lady cringe.

The school trash included 7.2 tons of milk each school year, the stuff left over in the cartons when students toss them in the trash. Add another 5.76 tons of milk and juice cartons. Another 22.7 tons of food waste was going in the trash, along with nearly 15 tons of things that should have been recycled, like plastic, cardboard and paper.

“I was amazed how much people were throwing out. I wasn’t sure we could do much about it, it seemed too big,’’ said Paige Robinson, one of five scouts who helped convince the school board to start an intensive recycling program.

But with help from garbage hauler Waste Management and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, Esko schools are on the way to cutting

50 tons of trash from going into local landfills, and to cutting their annual garbage bill by $3,000.

Esko now is recycling nearly everything that’s served, from milk cartons and paper to the leftover food scraped off students’ trays. And those trays are washed and reused, by the way, not tossed in the trash. The school also has bolstered recycling in offices, classrooms and even hallways.

“It takes quite a bit of work going in, but they are making a difference,’’ said Jim Borash, local Waste Management director.

The green school effort isn’t new. Duluth’s Stowe Elementary School, which has an environmental focus, has featured a nearly waste-free lunchroom since its inception in 1994, even offering cloth napkins to students to cut down on paper and stainless flatware instead of plastic sporks. Some 400 students each lunch at Stowe each day and fill less than one small can of trash.

Nettleton Elementary in Duluth last year started a similar effort, with students now separating food waste that’s recycled into compost for gardens.

Starting this school year the WLSSD, with help from a federal Job Crops grant, is sending waste reduction experts into schools across the Twin Ports. They also are brining the three R’s right into the classrooms – reduce, reuse and recycle – as part of school curriculum.

The effort eventually could divert hundreds of tons away from local landfills, save energy by reducing the need for new items and save taxpayers some cash.

In Esko, staff at first stood behind recycling bins reminding students where to put what. Now, it’s down to one staff and only for some of the time. Getting 1,200 students in and out of the same lunchroom in

90 minutes or so can be a challenge, and the recycling effort added a second lineup at the end of lunch.

Students accustomed to tossing trash into one bin now had to stop at several bins and think about what waste was going where.

“It started out great, but now some kids are forgetting. The younger kids are actually better … I think we’ll get there,’’ said Robinson, a ninth-grader.

John Myers is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune, which is owned by

Forum Communications Co.