Striving Towards Zero Waste

Written By: Morgan Kelley

All across America, food is making its way to consumers packaged in plastic bags, aluminum foil, wax paper, or single-use bags for snacks, are thrown away daily in mass amounts at the end of school lunch periods.

Though these packaging items seem convenient for school lunch programs, parents, to pack, it comes with a large environmental cost. In the long run, using disposable items is neither cost efficient nor sustainable.

According to, it is estimated that an average school child creates 67 pounds of lunch waste every year, which computes to 18,700 pounds of waste for a single average sized elementary school. Using sturdy glass and plastic Tupperware, lunch boxes with built in compartments for food, cloth napkins, real silverware, and choosing to pack foods that are not individually wrapped, are easy practices to start when it comes to reducing those figures.

A common sight in our schools: healthy, zero-waste food choices served on disposable trays; accompanied by an all-in-one disposable packet that includes plastic wrap, napkins, disposable silverware, and a plastic straw.

Grand Rapids Montessori Public School (GRMPS) has implemented some exciting practices geared

towards making school lunch more environmentally friendly. In fact, the efforts to be greener started with the students themselves. Michelle Holliday, who teaches a combined fourth, fifth, and sixth grade class, commented,

“Our students started it… they started their own composting in the lunchroom four years ago.”

The students were so motivated that they wrote letters to our nutrition services department asking for composting and compostable plates. Once we got our [compostable] plates we had parent volunteers and students help teach everyone for two weeks. Then we created a schedule for all classes to sign up and participate, so the lunchroom is covered daily.”  

Many of the students at GRMPS are concerned that the environment will continue to decline due to excessive landfill waste. One student commented, “Landfills and incinerators contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and the earth will be brown and ugly if we do not decrease our waste and emissions.”

One problem with many schools, including Grand Rapids Montessori Public School, is that there is not an infrastructure to wash dishes; that is why disposable items are used. Therefore, compostable cutlery and plates may be the most realistic starting goal for many schools.

Holliday emphasized that it is important to generate support from the cafeteria and maintenance staff, the administration, teachers, and the students.

At GRMPS, the students are responsible to sign up on their classroom-scheduled day to bring bags out and help sort compost, recyclables, and trash at the end of lunch. Parents are aware of the green practices at school due to the weekly all school e-news that

Teacher Michelle Holliday and students helping to sort and condense waste during the Zero Waste Lunch.

is sent to students’ families. In fact, these emails contain opportunities for parents to sign up to help with sorting waste at the end of lunch.

The GRMPS fourth through sixth grade students used posters to help the younger

kids learn how to sort their waste at the end of lunch. One student commented, “It is really fun to get to teach the little kids how to compost and recycle. I like helping them understand why they are doing this.”

When the students were asked what the best thing about maintaining a zero waste lunch was:

“Knowing that every classroom in our school is doing it, and not just ours. Everyone recycles plastic, and composts food scraps.”

“We have a good system that all students know how to use, and we know we are helping the environment.”

“I like how we are not using silly Styrofoam plates that are very bad for the environment and cannot be recycled.”

How can it be improved?

The zero waste initiative is relatively new in GRMPS, and there are some changes that can be made. The students told me of their dislike of the pre-wrapped plastic sporks that they are given at lunch daily. Even though their cafeteria does not have a dishwasher, the students told me that they would prefer using compostable sporks: “If we have to, plastic sporks with no wrapper would be better than having the pre-wrapped sporks because it would decrease waste.”

The students have also noticed that green practices could be implemented in full force during breakfast too, not just at lunch. The majority of the students that attend GRMPS eat breakfast at school, but in the mornings there are not classrooms assigned to help sort, or any kind of organized group around to support sorting efforts.

One student who brings his lunch to school every day commented: “I think it would be great if we could get parents and students that pack cold lunches, to participate in zero waste. There are many lunch boxes that have pre-portioned compartments, that allow for no waste generated. Healthy foods like nuts, salad, sandwiches, and fruits can be packed without any disposable materials.”

Around Earth Day, several local schools such as Holmes Elementary in Spring Lake planned a zero waste lunch day. They used compostable trays instead of styrofoam, and WMEAC helped guide the K-4 students through sorting compost, unopened food items and recyclables from trash.

It turned out to be quite a success, reducing trash production to 19 pounds for the day, as opposed to the 90 pounds that are usually generated.  Jessica Vander Ark, Director of Education at WMEAC, explained, “It is difficult to implement consistent large scale composting in schools like Spring Lake because of the lack of commercial composting pickup services available to them.  This proves to be one of the greatest challenges in capturing organic waste in cafeterias.”

Overall, the students at Holmes Elementary and Grand Rapids Montessori, all of whom are sixth grade or younger, make it clear that being environmental leaders can be a fulfilling and important experience for kids.  Students who when given the chance, show real excitement and passion to do what it takes to reduce waste, and work toward a more sustainable future.

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