AWESOME PROJECT: Keeping a close eye on waste streams at Applegate School, NJ

For the 25 students on the hardcore “green team” at Applegate School, in Freehold, NJ, just talking about the virtues of recycling is not enough. With the help of staffers like Debbie Wilson, green team chairperson, they’re rolling up their sleeves and embarking on a mission to dive nose-first into the school’s trashcans – in the lunchroom, in classrooms, even in the teachers’ room (!) – and to use official measuring tools to collect data, data, and more data. They want to know not roughly, not theoretically, but exactly how much of what’s being thrown away at the school could in fact be composted or recycled instead. They want the hard numbers. It’s those numbers, they say, that’ll set them FREE.

“We’re really trying to change the culture. We’re trying to empower the students to look at their own behavior and provide them with the resources they need so that they can truly initiate change,” says Wilson. “It’s really all in their hands. They’re gonna be the ones in charge of changing the culture here.”

So get out the heavy-duty gloves, because HELLO, school-wide trash audit. It’s all in line with the school’s heavy emphasis on project-based and experiential learning. Applegate is raising money via ioby right now to create green-team “toolboxes” for the audit, and for tarps, gloves, data-collection tablets, and more; they’re one of three New Jersey schools collaborating right now with the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program, which will be matching funds raised.

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“The students are really excited,” says Wilson. “We just finished a fundraising opportunity for the students to donate to our campaign page, and we sold globe key chains for a dollar. We called it ‘give green to go green.’ And the students were so excited. The line was down the hall and out the front door. Right off the bat, we got their buy-in.”


The green ripple effect

The goal is to use data collected to create an action plan for the school, so Applegate students and parents should expect real, visible changes coming down the pipeline. And the best news of all is that the action plan that emerges should ultimately reduce waste not just at Applegate, but also at the district’s seven other schools, since any changes affecting waste and recycling removal fees will need to be run by district personnel.

“Some of those numbers are going to probably – hopefully – change dramatically,” says Wilson. “So in theory, we may be able to expand our initiative beyond our school walls.” Ditto for any changes made in the dining hall, as Applegate shares a food service company with the seven other schools.


Getting over the ewww factor

So, is the green team ready to dumpster dive? Do they have it in them? They’ll be squeamish at first, says Wilson. No question. “I think once they get over that initial ‘ew!’ they’re actually gonna love it,” she adds. “And I know that because of the gross compost that showed up at school, after we started composting in the outdoor classroom. The initial reaction is ‘oh, this is so gross,’ and then when you take a scoop of compost out of the compost bin and show the kids that it doesn’t smell, that it’s not yucky, that it’s part of the earth, and that it’s going to help the plants in our garden grow better. Kids are willing to get dirty and get gross. A lot more than adults.”


Schools teach kids teach parents

Wilson especially loves to see the school’s green ethos and curriculum trickle into kids’ home lives and families. After a garden club lesson in the school’s outdoor classroom on worm composting, for example, kids started bringing scraps from home. “I had kids showing up in my office with bags full of leftover salad greens, because they wanted to compost,” says Wilson. “They brought coffee grounds to their teacher as a gift. Dryer lint, plenty of dryer lint.”

She also started to get surprising emails from parents. “Emails like ‘why is my kid yelling at me every time I make a salad for dinner, when I throw things away?’ Kids are going home and teaching their parents about living more sustainable lives,” she explains. “You hear it from your own children, it’s so much more convincing that you need to make changes in your own household than to get a flier from the school.”

That’s a chain effect we can really get behind. To support Applegate’s green team, to learn more, or just to watch an impossibly awesome video of students peering determinedly into their cafeteria trashcans, check out the team’s ioby campaign page here. They’re more than halfway to their goal, and have 25 days left to fundraise.

Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Want some more cute overload? Check out what’s sprouting at another of the three NWF NJ eco-schools: Seek Academy, in the South Ward of Newark. There are some beloved seedlings growing over there that may just change these kids’ lives.