By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Sophia Academy is an all-girls middle school on Branch Avenue with less than a hundred students. During the 2011-12 school year, the academy’s 62 girls sent 10,000 Styrofoam lunch trays to the landfill.
“We did some simple ‘tray math’ in class,” said Alyssa Wood, science teacher at the school. Wood had her students multiply the 180-day school year by the 62 students enrolled at Sophia Academy, almost all of whom receive a free or reduced lunch. The students were amazed by the result, she said.
“Before we did the exercise I asked the students to guess how many trays the school was using each year,” Wood said. “Most guessed much lower than the actual number.”
Last summer, Wood began to consider transitioning Sophia Academy away from Styrofoam lunch trays to reusable plates. When she worked at the Lincoln School, Wood witnessed a lunchroom using reusable plates. The Lincoln School’s kitchen staff washed the plates, a luxury Wood knew Sophia Academy couldn’t afford. But with the small number of students at Sophia, Wood believed it made sense to try.
After a school-wide assembly last October related to waste-stream issues and Rhode Island’s ever-shrinking Central Landfill, Wood began to “plant the seed” in her students’ heads about the waste generated by Styrofoam lunch trays.
“I was already teaching about environmental literacy, so this was a perfect opportunity to connect the students’ personal behavior with a real-world issue — the space in the landfill,” Wood said.
Wood said she was surprised to learn how much the students “loathed” the Styrofoam lunch trays they ate from each day. “They were especially upset that they didn’t have a say,” she said.
With her fifth-grade class, Wood brainstormed a Styrofoam-free lunchtime routine. Because Sophia Academy’s kitchen staff — one person — was already busy during the school’s lunch periods, the effort needed to be sustained by student volunteers.
Wood and her students decided to focus on the fifth- and sixth-grade lunch period first. Each morning, students would place their stack of 30 clean plates at the head of the serving station. Collection bins would be added near the garbage cans for students to place their plates into after scraping them off. Finally, a rotating, volunteer, two-person washing team would scrub and sanitize the plates during their recess period, with some help from the kitchen staff.
Students spent the winter designing their own plates. Each fifth- and sixth-grade student created artwork on a circular, paper template that was then transposed onto a reusable plate by an outside company. Each lunch period, students receive a random plate, allowing them to admire the work of their classmates, Wood said.
Supplies, including plates, drying racks and gloves, were bought with money from Mercy Ecology at New Dawn, a Loraine Tisdale Environmental Education Award, and from a bake-sale fundraiser.
The program launched in early April.
“By the end of May, every fifth- and sixth-grade student had taken a turn at the washing station,” Wood said. Each day a student who had learned the process the previous day taught a new student how to wash the plates.
Wood said the implementation went smoothly, and that the program immediately reduced the amount of trash Sophia Academy was adding to its Dumpster by about half.
Wood even embraced the hiccups that arose during the process. “I started to notice that the dish-washing information was not being passed on effectively,” she said. She described the student-led training program like a giant game of Telephone — over time, some information was left out while other information was being modified. Wood took the problem back to the students, asking them why they thought it was happening and how they could fix it.
“This project has brought our community together,” Wood said. Teachers and administrators are exited and supportive of the program and the students have taken pride in being part of a decision-making process, she said.
To extend the project’s impact, the fifth-grade class created a photo book that each student in the school will eventually take home to share with family.
While Wood has ideas for future sustainability projects at Sophia Academy — chiefly improving recycling awareness and habits — she said the upcoming school year will be used to continue building the reusable-plate program and expanding it to the seventh- and eighth-grade lunch period. “We’re not quite done with this. We have a vision that’s not fulfilled yet,” she said.
Expanding the program will require a revised strategy, training for new students and 30 more plates. Funding has already been secured for the incoming fifth-graders’ plates; eighth-graders may hold a bake sale to raise money for their own plates. Each plate costs about $7.
“I could see how much waste we were producing, and I could also see that we were not questioning that waste,” Wood said. “I am proud of the students for getting on board with this project once we began thinking about the problem.”