After returning to school last week, students and their parents have begun to settle back into a routine, giving them an opportunity to assess what they need for the school year. This is an ideal time to conserve resources, save money, and support the Wilton School District’s Zero Waste Initiative.

In September 2017, with the support of Wilton Go Green, Wilton Public Schools launched the Zero Waste School Initiativewhich aims to reduce waste in the schools through composting, food donation, recycling, and environmental conservation. Participation in such a program enables students to learn and implement sustainable habits.

Heather Priest, Middlebrook culinary art teacher, spearheaded the Middlebrook pilot program, which followed in Cider Mill and Miller Driscoll in January 2018. Wilton High School began implementing the Zero Waste program this September. District-wide, the campaign is called, “Warriors Won’t Waste” to promote sustainable living through recycling, reuse, composting and donations of unused food.

In her latest “Notes from the Board Table” column, Board of Education chair Christine Finkelstein applauded Priest for what the programs has already achieved:
  • Since “Warriors Won’t Waste” was launched just two years ago, over five tons of compost and six tons of recycling that would have gone to a landfill has been diverted.* [Important to note: Wilton High School has only been a participant since the 2017-2018 school year.]
  • In December 2017, 100% of Cider Mill cafeteria waste went directly to landfill. By April 2018, that figure plunged to less than 10%. Instead, almost half of waste is now composted, and one-third is recycled.
  • Recycling waystations, with separate receptacles to capture compost, landfill and recyclables, are now in place in all cafeterias. Wilton High School currently has three way-stations in place, with a fourth on the way.
Heather Priest (L) and Tammy Thornton present to the Bd. of Education in Sept 2018

Since its inception, Priest says the greatest success of the program is the support from the Wilton community, including the Board of Education, school administration and students, and Wilton Go Green.

“The kids seem to be excited to be a part of the program and the Wilton community is engaged. We have the support of like-minded people who understand our goals,” she says.

That support will be critical to Zero Waste’s future growth as it faces the challenge of adapting a program that was built around single stream recycling, a system in which all paper, plastics and metals are collected together rather than being sorted into different commodities. This system is no longer available due to a recent shift in international trade.

“It’s very challenging for us. We want to take out as much as we possibly can from garbage stream but the carting companies will no longer take items they were taking just six months ago. This program was designed as single stream recycling. We have to adjust. We have to change the education constantly,” Priest explains.

Another significant challenge has been contamination in the compost, which is a common mistake that drives up the cost on a modest budget. Priest is hopeful that students will become more focused on how waste is disposed as they get accustomed to the recycling and composting protocols. “Kids are focused on getting to recess. It just takes mindful consideration to make sure they are getting the waste in the right place.”

Looking ahead, Priest sees sustainability curriculum and formal training as the key to ensuring future success. With continued support from the Board of Education and Wilton Go Green, the program will look to adapt and broaden the scope of educating faculty, staff, and students and securing volunteers.

“Education is key. This year our educational focus is going to be on reduction. Bring less. Our goal at every school, and throughout the community is to reduce waste. I say to everybody, ‘Don’t buy single use products.’”

Tammy Thornton, a Wilton Go Green board member who serves on the Zero Waste committee and as the Miller Driscoll PTA president, explained that while every Wilton student with the exception of the kindergartners, and members of the sophomore, junior, and senior classes has been exposed to the Zero Waste program, it was critical to get teachers and staff, and student families involved.

“We do all need to be on board. Teacher and staff involvement is really important. And making the connection between home and school reinforces the habit changing behavior,” Thorton says.

Priest echoes that sentiment.

“We need parents to buy into the program. Parents need to educate themselves and have those conversations with their children.”

photo: Skip Ploss

On August 29, at the ’18-’19 Wilton public schools convocation, Thorton addressed hundreds of faculty and staff to explain the goals of Zero Waste and how it is implemented in the schools. To support the initiative, parents are encouraged to reuse and recycle school supplies. “It’s all about pausing…Looking at what you already have.  What do you really need?”

Students who need to replenish can find reusable resources locally. Signature Style (72 Old Ridgefield Rd.) carries a plethora of reusable lunch bags, water bottles, and backpacks. In vibrant colors and a variety of styles, Signature Style merchandise has something for boy and girl students of all ages, all of which can also be personalized.

For reusable food containers, including bento boxes, both Stop and Shop and the Village Market carry a multitude of options, and the Village Market now carries stainless steel mini straws.

PTAs at Middlebrook, Cider Mill, and Miller Driscoll will sell reusable plastic sandwich bags again this year, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Zero Waste Initiative.

Thorton believes every effort to reuse and to recycle makes a difference by setting an example.

“It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Small changes have big impacts. Everyone is making a difference with their part.”