Birchwood STEAM students change school's recycling habits

Birchwood Middle School has a new system for sorting food waste and retrieving sharable items to be donated. Teacher Katharine Bowers, second from left, initiated the program with STEAM students Ella Palladino, Anthony Feliciano, Oluwatosin Odekunle standing next to Principal Brian Gilmore, and Emma Chabo and Dylan Amaral.

NORTH PROVIDENCE — In only a few weeks, students at Birchwood Middle School have gone from producing six to eight bags of garbage every day during school lunches to filling only one bag of trash.

The group of STEAM students behind the effort to reduce Birchwood’s contributions to the landfill have been working to educate their peers about ways to reduce waste, introducing a new system to school lunches.

Previously, when students were finished eating, the items on their lunch tray would be dumped into a trash bin without much care, say staff members. Now, they enter a line that begins with a “share table,” where uneaten fruit and unopened, factory-sealed non-perishable school food items are collected, to be donated to the food bank at St. Thomas Church on Fruit Hill Avenue.

Liquids are poured into a bucket, and papers and plastics are sorted into “recycle” and “landfill” barrels, with students there to help sort them. They even have tongs to catch anything that lands in the wrong place.

The students have learned a lot about what can and can’t be recycled. Before, Dylan Amaral said he thought all plastics could be recycled, but learned that plastic bags, utensils and straws cannot.

All leftover food that can’t be donated is added to a compost bin, and kitchen staff are now composting fruit and vegetable scraps. Most of the food scraps will be hauled away by Bootstrap Compost, but the STEAM students now have their own small-scale compost bins at school, which will be used to fortify the soil in Birchwood’s greenhouse/STEAM garden.

Bootstrap Compost is also providing a “how to compost” workshop for STEAM classes.

All of this was made possible through Get Food Smart Rhode Island, a program by the R.I. Schools Recycling Club. The organization was created in partnership with R.I. Resource Recovery and the Department of Environmental Management.

The R.I. Schools Recycling Club estimates that Birchwood alone generated about 8.3 tons of food waste over the course of the school year, but roughly two tons of that wasted food was recoverable and could be shared or donated.

Members of Birchwood’s green team, under the guidance of teacher Katharine Bowers, were eager to take on the challenge.

“We’re trying to keep the landfill bill as small as possible,” said Oluwatosin Odekunle, who learned that 40 percent of U.S. residents waste food. “We’re trying to get that down, because it really does have an impact on the environment,” he said.

“It’s just really fun to do it, and it helps you kind of become friends with one another and not be so shy,” said Ella Palladino.

Birchwood is currently the only middle school in the state taking part in the program, said school staff, but Bowers and the students said they hope to educate and inspire others to start.

Principal Brian Gilmore said the students’ efforts are saving taxpayer dollars.

“We’re really reducing the amount of food waste, which accounts for most of the weight going into the landfill, which is estimated to be at-capacity by 2040,” said Bowers. “We need to do our part to cut down on what we send.”

“It’s a really important thing,” Amaral said.

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