Zero Waste

Worms play a significant role in the production of rich, earth-fragrant soil.

©Wawrzyniec Korona/123 RF Stock Photo

Hawaiʻi's Zero Waste Revolution is changing public school waste habits one (less) trash can at a time.

To most people, a handful of worm excrement wouldn't be considered worth anything. But to the kids and staff members at Lanikai Elementary Public Charter School, worms – and the waste they produce – equal a currency that's worth more than we could imagine.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" asks Mindy Jaffe, Lanikai's Resource Recovery Specialist and lead advocate of the Zero Waste Revolution, as she scoops up a hefty pile of rich and earth-fragrant soil. "This was made from cardboard, paper, apple cores, banana peels [and] rice. It's all right here on campus."

Three years ago, the Lanikai campus was amassing more than two dumpster-loads worth of garbage bags per day. The thought of transforming its waste into anything substantial — let alone into recyclable or reusable materials — was far from any vision that seemed possible. 

Parker Sawyer, Lanikai's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) department head, was inspired to start a compost system after the Kōkua Hawai'i Foundation's 'Āina in Schools – founded by musician Jack Johnson and his wife Kim – granted funds for Lanikai to have eight garden beds installed on campus. When Sawyer signed up to be the garden coordinator, he realized that an on-going compost system would be the most resourceful way of refilling the beds. He just didn't know how to go about making it.

"I remembered sitting here thinking," says Sawyer, as he points to the eight now-thriving garden beds. "Now I got to fill these beds and I didn't know too much about gardening at that time."

Parker heard about Jaffe's success at Pearl City High School where a whopping 40 tons of food waste a year was being composted. And after he researched online and took Jaffe's hot composting class, he was hooked.

"As a teacher I felt like this was the perfect setting to teach our kids responsibility," Sawyer says. "We have them eight hours a day, so why not teach those behaviors here, especially at the elementary stage, and then hope that it transcends to their home life and eventually within the community."

The children of Lanikai Elementary do their part in the Zero Waste Revolution.

Although Jaffe was working full-time at Pearl City High School, she agreed to devote a half an hour a week to take care of a donated worm bin, known as Big Blue, at Lanikai Elementary. Slowly but surely, the worm bin turned the school's food waste into vermicast – a natural, nutrient-rich fertilizer. The Zero Waste Revolution program soon expanded into lunch separation stations, hot composting piles, bokashi (an ancient Japanese method of processing food waste), a compost tea brewer and a non-trash can known as Sort-It-Out Sam.

"Oh the kids just love him," says Jaffe, as she pokes Sam’s swing-open ʻmouth,’ which resembles a cartoonish smile as the bin also sports two eyes and a nose. His ‘arms,’ made out of buckets, collect paper, and recyclable cans and bottles while his ‘mouth’ collects such worm-friendly food as fruit peels and half-eaten granola bars. "The key to zero waste is to designate where everything goes. Today, we got rid of 22 trashcans and replaced every class with their own Sort-It-Out Sam. We have exactly four rubbish cans on this entire campus. It's really amazing."

What's also truly transformative, says Lanikai's school director Ed Noh, are the students and the impact they've had on adults. When Noh first received notice from Sawyer about his pursuit of a zero-waste school, he was immediately on board as it was a program that "just made sense" to the overall environment that it would provide for the students and the community.

"There's this learning opportunity at every facet of this program," Noh says. "From setting up the separation stations to the data collection. It's really powerful for the kids, and us, to see for ourselves what this whole cycle is all about. Yes, we're solving one problem with waste reduction but the other side of it is creating this living laboratory for learning."

And although education is the main goal and theme for the entire program, it helps to see some recognition, especially when Lanikai's data collection was unlike any other school in the nation. Thanks to the school's efforts, Lanikai Elementary was ranked number one in the nation for EPA's K-12 Food Recovery Challenge for the 2014-2015 school year. Along with this acknowledgment, Noh is equally excited for the school's push in creating an on-going dialogue and sense of awareness within the community.

Lanikai Elementary reaps the bountiful benefits of their new Zero Waste practices.

"Our kids are really proud that they're part of the solution," Noh notes. "They want to help make a difference. That's what's so inspiring about this program."

This year, Kaelepulu and Kainalu Elementary will slowly start their Zero Waste Revolution efforts, turning their food waste into compost with the help of interns from the non-profit organization, Kupu, and Jaffe as the supervisor.

Although it does take some manual labor experience to do the custodial work that's required for the success of the program, Jaffe is adamant that the idea of a Zero Waste Revolution for all our schools is not far-fetched. Once the routines are set up and positive behaviors are reinforced, "nature," Jaffe says, "will take care of the rest." Despite obvious funding that needs to be secured for an actual custodial position (like Jaffe's) in every school and possibly a teacher to take on the role as the educator (like Sawyer's), Jaffe says there is no reason why every campus in the country shouldn't be a part of the Zero Waste Revolution.

"I think we can teach [our kids] that there's a choice and that the environment is not just the rainforest or the ocean," Jaffe affirms. "The environment is right here right now. We have all the resources available, it's just up to all of us to make the right decision." 

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