St. Louis Teachers Leading on Sustainability

Leading on research in plant biology, ecology, conservation, and preservation is what the Missouri Botanical Garden is best known for. Less well known is the impact the Garden is having in the St. Louis community. Many teams at the Garden work in partnership with organizations around the St. Louis region to support initiatives around native plants, youth employment, sustainability, and many other critical areas. In particular, the EarthWays Center, as the sustainability division, works in schools to support teacher and student led action projects on waste reduction, energy efficiency, and storm water management. 

Support is the key word. The teachers that partner with EarthWays through the EarthWays Sustainability Network (ESN) are already leaders and outstanding education professionals in their school buildings, with a drive to create learning opportunities for students through action projects on waste and recycling. The goal of the Network is to provide teachers with some background knowledge on waste, financial support to purchase supplies for projects, and one-on-one and peer-to-peer support in being a sustainability champion. With a little support, these teachers help to transform their schools and communities into more sustainable places to learn. The following are reflections from teachers in the 2019-2020 ESN cohort about their accomplishments from this past year.

Responses from teachers have been edited for length.

Brown Elementary – Hazelwood School District

Teacher: Brandi McKenna

“Our school started their green efforts in the 2018-2019 school year by establishing a recycling program. We formed a team of teachers to act as the ‘Green Team’ leaders, and then recruited students to help teach their peers and collect recycling weekly. Our goals when joining the EarthWays Sustainability Network this year were to continue with the current recycling program and to complete an evaluation of our cafeteria waste in hopes of expanding our recycling efforts. 

The cafeteria waste team had a plan to emulate our building-wide recycling program by looking at our waste, identifying what could be recycled, and educating their peers. The plan last year was so simple and successful that they were ready to tackle another area in our building. So, we scheduled and completed our waste audit with our ESN mentor and quickly found that it was not going to be as easy. 

Photo by Brandi McKenna

One of the first challenges we faced was the fact that all of the plastics currently being used by the kitchen were not accepted for recycling in our area. So after doing the waste audit, the only thing we were able to recycle were the milk containers from breakfast and lunch. This was a bit of a disappointment for the students. But, we immediately started brainstorming ideas for reducing the waste from our school meals. One easy fix was to switch the type of plastics for our side items to a plastic that is accepted for recycling. Our next option, which was the bulk of our goal, was to eliminate plastic utensils and replace them with reusable metal utensils. This is where the students really took ownership of the project and worked hard to advocate for the changes they wanted to see in their school. The students researched landfills and the effect of plastic pollution in our communities and waterways. They also did research on the cost of plastic utensils versus metal utensils and interviewed our cafeteria manager about the current procedures and predicted issues with changing to metal utensils. They then took the information that they learned and wrote essays advocating for a change to the building procedures, and presented their essays to the administration. They were thrilled when they found out that our principal was interested in making the change. We are currently in the process of getting approval from the district to change to metal utensils for the upcoming school year.

Photo by Brandi McKenna

Their participation in this program helped empower them to make a change in their world and taught them that even kids can change the world for the better. We plan to continue to look for new ways to reduce our waste at school, teaching students how to be conscious of their mark on the world, and advocate for balance between humans and the planet.”

Captain Elementary – Clayton School District

Teacher: Cathy Chamberlin

“Many first-grade families and students practice sustainability in their homes. Students bring lunch and snacks in reusable containers. I wanted to build upon this base of knowledge and commitment to encourage sustainable practices in our school.

We started with the waste audit. The EarthWays staff helped my first-grade class sort and weigh trash. The result showed paper made up the largest type of trash being thrown away. In a school setting where paper is used daily, this was alarming.

Photo by Cathy Chamberlin

Beginning in our classroom, students became more aware and careful with how they threw away trash, sorting things into compost, recycling, and landfill.

Next, our class discussed what they wanted to learn more about and do after the waste audit. The big question was “Why do we need less trash?” We read books and learned about landfills. Students learned that we need to reuse, reduce, and recycle things to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in landfills.

They covered recycling bins with colorful recycling guides. They started their own groups to collect trash around the schoolyard. They made short videos to share their learning with students and families.         

As their teacher, I wanted to provide experiences not only in sustainable practices but also to connect students to the natural world. We created a ‘Reuse It’ area for all first-grade students to create things. We made fresh decorative paper from paper in the recycling. We manage a worm farm in our classroom. 

Photo by Cathy Chamberlin

All of these experiences help young children see themselves as connected to their community and feel they have the capacity to create change.”

Long Elementary – Lindbergh School District

Teachers: Erin Craden, Terri Groh, Michael Jobst, Tracey Lay, Lewis Naeger, Liz Rich

“Last summer, teachers were asked to choose a passion project–something they felt motivated and excited about. We wanted our students, staff and community to be “greener.” In the fall, students in grades K-5 chose to be on the newly formed Green Team based on similar interests as the teachers. 

EarthWays Sustainability Network came to our school to do a waste audit. We collected bags of trash from several classrooms. The students put on gloves and got to work sorting. The results were alarming. We found over 11 pounds of paper, 5 pounds of plastic, 3 pounds of aluminum and 1 pound of glass in our trash. Since we only audited a few classrooms we knew that this problem was much bigger and more widespread. Our team came together to look at the data, and the students quickly got to work on brainstorming solutions: 

  • Create better labels or lids for recycling containers
  • Create signs throughout the school to show which items can and cannot be recycled
  • Create lesson plans for classrooms to teach students about what can and cannot be recycled 
  • Create weekly video announcements with “Green” tips of the week
  • Create a team to collect recycling once a week and carefully check for items that should not be in the bins

Each week when our Green Team members collected the recycling we found less trash mixed in. We also found that our custodial staff was very grateful for the time we took to consolidate the recycling into two central bins. This freed up their time to focus on cleaning and prevented our recycling from being disposed of in the trash. Parents were proud and excited to see our efforts that our principal shared in newsletters. 

We were also hopeful to report our findings to district administration and the school board in the hopes that we can find additional district-wide ways to continue our efforts, including exploring composting and using more reusable materials in the cafeteria. A second-grade student was prepared to speak passionately before the board about her experiences this year. Here is a sample of her speech: 

“The first goal we needed to make better was Lindbergh’s recycling practices. Recycling bins throughout our schools were mixed with trash instead of items that could actually be recycled. This caused our custodians to throw most items into our school’s dumpster. Many of the recyclables that made it to the outdoor recycling receptacle were contaminated or got contaminated once placed inside. If bins of recyclable materials are contaminated with things like food waste, rain water or trash, the items cannot be recycled. This also makes them not profitable for the hauler. When that happens, the hauler charges our schools. How did we fix this problem? Through education!We found out most staff and students lacked knowledge of what could actually be recycled so we brought in experts to teach us.”

With the data collected from last school year, a group of passionate and motivated students and educators ready to help, we know that this endeavor is far from over and that our journey has just begun.”

Meramec Elementary – St. Louis Public Schools

Teacher: Laura Watson

“Prior to participating in the Sustainability Network our school was not doing anything to manage waste, recycle waste, or reduce waste. The goal for participating in the program was to raise awareness of sustaining Earth’s resources. It was challenging to get students to separate their trash from recyclables. The fifth graders decided that they would train the preschool thru fourth graders on what trash is and what is recyclable. Therefore, they went from class to class presenting information on recycling. After each presentation, the students asked the class members to take the pledge to recycle. If they agreed to help our school then their pledge leaf with their signature would go on the school pledge tree. Each Wednesday fifth grade students would collect recycle cans from each class and weigh them. They would record the weight of the can, and post the weight of each class. The fifth graders would also pay attention to the items that were placed in the recycling bin. If there were items that did not belong in recycling the fifth graders would give a friendly reminder and sometimes re-teach the class about recyclables. 

Students really enjoyed the recycling program. They shared that the project was fun.  Third and fourth graders have asked will they get a chance to run the program when they are in fifth grade. During spring parent-teacher conferences, many parents picked up a free recycle bin for home use (provided by St. Louis City Recycles).  Discipline issues decreased significantly among fifth graders in particular since the implementation of the program.  We experienced students working together that would normally struggle to complete assigned tasks. ESN made a huge impact on student learning and we are looking forward to continuing next year.”

Learn more about the EarthWays Sustainability Network by visiting the program website, and apply for the 2020-21 cohort by contacting Maggie at The EarthWays Center is committed to being flexible and supporting teachers through the Sustainability Network regardless of whether students are learning at home or at school. 

Maggie McCoy
EarthWays Center Education and Volunteer Coordinator

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