Students at Eastwood Elementary School in East Alton don't toss their lunchroom leftovers in the trash anymore.
They separate plastic, aluminum and cardboard for recycling before heading out to the playground. There's even a bin for food scraps that get composted.
"I think it's really good for the environment, and it's not that hard," said fifth-grader Marvin Jackson, 10. "The monitors tell us what to recycle and what to throw away."
Some students are slow and methodical, making sure every fork and chip bag goes in the right place. Others move at lightning speed.
"I call them the turbo-droppers," said District 13 employee Doug Bogert with a grin. "But they get it. They just do it in a hurry. They don't want to waste time."
Bogert, 40, is working with Madison County on a pilot recycling program at Eastwood, East Alton Middle School and Washington Early Childhood Center.
If successful, it could expand to schools throughout Madison County.
"We're striving to get as close to zero waste as we can," said Green Schools Coordinator Ann Linenfelser, 63.
Making 'good dirt'
The three District 13 schools have collected more than 21 tons of food scraps and tons of recyclables in five months.
"There's an economic benefit," said Eastwood principal Matt Stimac, 46. "We've reduced our fees to the waste hauler.
"But it's also a chance to teach students why we should recycle, what to recycle and how to be good stewards of the earth. The more we reduce what we send to landfills, the better it is for the environment."
The program is called the Food Scrap Pilot because scrap removal is key. Recycling companies want paper, plastic and other materials not "contaminated" by food.
"If you get the food out of the waste stream, almost everything is recyclable," said Cliff Roberts, 61, owner of Always Green Recycling in Missouri.
His trucks haul District 13 food scraps to St. Louis Composting each day.
The scraps are mixed with yard clippings and left to decompose, then bagged and sold to landscapers and gardeners as a soil additive.
"The compost makes really good dirt, and that's what you need to grow food," said Eastwood fifth-grader Aubrey Robinson, 10.
No more Styrofoam
Most schools in Madison County recycle at some level. Last year, Linenfelser offered funding for any district willing to try the Food Scrap Pilot.
East Alton Superintendent Virgil Moore liked the idea and so did Bogert, who helps oversee food service as grounds and transportation supervisor.
"My dad was always big on composting because we had a big garden," he said. "It wasn't about being green. He firmly believed that compost was the best way to have good, nutritional soil for the plants to grow."
Eastwood has recycled paper for years. It recently added plastic and aluminum, reinforcing what many students already were doing at home.
"We want it to be second nature in their lives," Linenfelser said. "We want it to occur everywhere they are."
The school also did away with Styrofoam lunch trays, which had been causing dumpsters to overflow.
"We used 600 trays a day (for breakfast and lunch)," said Principal Stimac. "And they don't compact."
The school returned to plastic trays that could be washed and reused. It also stopped using individual plastic silverware sets packaged in cellophane.
Life with Big Yellow
It took a few weeks for Eastwood students to get used to the new lunchroom clean-up system.
"It's been a learning experience for all of us," Linenfelser said. "When we first started, we had a lot of contamination (food mixed with recyclables), but that has improved."
On a recent weekday, the lunchroom buzzed with conversation and laughter until monitor Colleen Williams switched off the lights.
Students quieted down for instructions on what could be recycled and what should be trashed from their trays.
"Everything else, including napkins, goes in the Big Yellow," said Williams, 53, using the school's nickname for the food-scrap bin.
She switched the lights back on, prompting students to jump up from their tables, rush to a row of bins and start separating.
"It's not hard," Aubrey said. "It's kind of like using a phone. Once you have it a while, you get used to it and know what to do."
Stimac hasn't heard any major complaints from students over their extra recycling duties.
"I think they understand it's the right thing to do," he said, "and they do it."
A lesson on worms
Eastwood teachers are using the recycling program as a stepping stone for lessons about the environment.
Linenfelser stopped by Nancy Hilyard's first-grade classroom with a "worm farm" (plastic tub with worms and wadded-up newspaper) to talk about one form of composting.
"These red wigglers take in food and out comes good soil," she said.
Students squealed and giggled as each got a paper plate with a night crawler, a larger worm more suitable for study.
"This is weird!" said Xavier Thomas, 6. "It looks like he's getting longer. He's sniffing. He's like, 'Where am I?' I like to be in the dark.'"
The young scientists used toothpicks to gently probe the worms. Then they recorded their observations.
"They need water," wrote Kelli LeMond, 6. "They love soil." "You need to help worms."
Linenfelser left the tub of worms with Hilyard after giving instructions on proper care. She advised feeding them coffee, fruits and vegetables and squirting the newspaper with water to maintain a moist habitat.
Hilyard promised to put one student in charge of the worms each day.
"We'll take good care of them," she said. "We won't let them die."