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Wondering about Waste

Wondering about Waste

What will we do with the trash?

Our intention as a staff this year was to focus on the idea of food to table – exploring how the food we eat gets to us and what impact it has along the way.  I wanted to start with waste in Opal 3, because I was eager to see if we could impact the waste we already produce as a classroom. 

First day provocation in early October:  I took away the garbage bins, and told the story of the garbage barge that couldn’t find a place to dump its load.  I told the students that I was worried about running out of landfill space and I didn’t want to contribute to landfills anymore.  Later that day, I gathered the class on the stage and asked them to figure out what to do with all the trash.


The students quickly realized that they could sort what had been thrown away.  They found what they thought was recyclable or compostable, based on what they already knew from recycling and/or composting at home.

That same day, the students came up with an initial plan to recycle and compost in the classroom.


Over the next few days, the students consulted non-fiction materials to see whether our initial sort of the waste was accurate.  They found out that much of what they assumed was recyclable was not.


They also learned what can and cannot be composted in a home-compost (the black) bin like the one we have at school.


How can we keep the trash we produce in our classroom
out of the landfill?

This question lingered in our classroom, especially in light of our discovery of the “green bin” – business composting available through the city of Portland.

For about a month, the class sorted how much would go into the black, green, blue and landfill bins and recording the volumetric data.  We noticed that the students in Opal 3 don’t always remember where each type of trash should go.  Harry volunteered to be the class “Trash Sorter” and stand by the bins to remind people where to put their trash.  We also noticed that the waste we produce in our classroom is mostly food related waste. 


So we wondered, where does all of this food related waste come from?  For homework one weekend, the students tracked what they ate and what packaging it came in.  Then they combined and graphed their data in their table groups.


The students also estimated what we call their transportation and factory points.  Factory points tell you how much time the food you ate spent in a factory, 0 – 3, based on how processed it is.  A whole food gets 0 points and one that comes ready to eat in a whole new form out of a package gets 3 points.

Transportation points tell you how far your food had to travel to get to your table, 0 points if it comes from your backyard and 3 points if it comes from outside the region where we live.

Then we wondered,

What do factory points and transportation points have to do with waste?

We had a science talk about this question.

Michael came up with a metaphor connecting the waste bin in our classroom to the factory and transportation points:

He said, "The more factory and transportation points to start…  like an apple can go in the compost, and apple crisp goes in the green bin so it hits more factory and transportation points."
He explained this idea further in writing like this:
Step 1.  When an apple first comes out from an apple tree it goes in the compost.
Step 2.  When you make an apple crisp, and you don’t eat all of it, it goes in the green box.
Step 3.  When the apple crisp gets wrapped in plastic, it goes in the landfill.
Then, through the power of discussion that happens so often in a science talk, Catherine took Michael's metaphor and explained it further:
Catherine:  The more time spent in the factory, it goes from black to green to landfill.  The fresh fruit goes in the black box, the crisp, sort of processed, goes in the green bin, and then if it is in the factory longer it goes in the landfill.
Paul added:  It reminds me of Star Wars when they talk about Darth Vader – “More machine than man.”  It is more plastic than food. 
Danny connected this idea to other things he eats and said, "If you think about it,
one single candy bar goes through so much waste you don’t even know about."
Alex constructed her own theory:
The longer it is in the factory and on the ride, the more it has to stay fresh, so the more it’s packaged.  If you pick the tomatoes from your garden then you don’t need a plastic container to throw away.  If they put reusable containers it would cost more to make them and your tomatoes might cost $30.
Then she drew this picture:
Alex asked:
Which tomato would you choose?
The one from the Oregon or California factory that got processed and then shipped all the way to the grocery store in Texas with all of the factory and transportation points or the one you picked from the garden in your backyard?
When the class discussed this question, Alex suggested that if you had to buy the tomatoes from Texas that you could make up for it by recycling or not driving one day, because then you wouldn’t be sending more to the landfill overall.  The students agreed that it was a balance and that we all made choices to make sure we were keeping our impact low.  But what is that impact, really?

Abigail and Riley wondered if you walked to the grocery store and bought a tomato from Egypt for $1 a pound compared to driving 30 minutes to Sauvie Island or to New Seasons to buy local, organic tomatoes, which one really produces the most waste?  The impact of that one tomato on a truck or train or the impact of you driving across town to make the local choice?

Alex invented her own version of carbon offsets, and Abigail and Riley are making sense of it all based on their own experiences and schema.

The big question remains:  Where will we go from here?

There are so many possibilities.  Here are some big questions I am pondering…

–How can we calculate the impact of our choices?
–What does our food go through to get to our tables?
–How did people in the 17th Century think about and handle resources and waste?
–What factors influenced different approaches toward resources and waste?
Advocacy and Critical Thinking
–How can we influence the way people think about the food they eat and the trash they produce?
–When should we wonder if we just “don’t know any better”?
–As Paul asked:  How do you convince these people to care? (about making choices that lower their factory and transportation points)