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Tuesday, September 18 Local

Stamford parents start grassroots effort to cut school waste

STAMFORD — Green beans were an unpopular lunch item in the cafeteria at Northeast Elementary School on Friday.

The waxy vegetable remained in the corner of many a Styrofoam tray of the kindergartners and first graders during the first lunch wave. But rather than the food landing in the trash, students placed it in a yellow bin marked “compost.”

There are eight bins, four to a set, at the front and back of the room for recycling, trash, compost and liquid waste. There are also tiny desks topped with plastic-wrapped bagels uneaten by students. That food is refrigerated and sent home with food-insecure families identified by school officials.

The bins are manned by parent volunteers making a Herculean effort to guide the youngsters toward proper disposal. Armed with stickers with a recycling logo and a pair of tongs to move misplaced items, these moms are leading the charge to helping the school reduce waste.

“Without them, this was not going to happen,” said Shawn Marinello, Northeast’s new principal. “They’ve been working really hard. A big part of teaching sustainability is the parents.”

According to Alicia Teitelbaum, a PTO parent and member of the school’s Green Works Committee, the group is halfway through their plan to change the culture surrounding waste at Northeast. Through the power of parental guidance and incentives like capes and sashes for helpful participants, the students saved 65 pounds of liquid waste and 45 punds of school waste over the course of just two days.

The parents have also partnered with Bay State Textiles to install bins in the school parking lot to collect old clothes, shoes and purses to be reused as car-seat cushions. The school gets $100 per ton donated.

Waste reduction has been a focus across the city since the cost of trash and recycling disposal went up to $70 a pound. Officials further zoomed in on the schools which, according to the city’s Department of Recycling and Sanitation, produced two million pounds of trash and over a million pounds of recycling during the 2017 to 2018 school year.

Northeast School alone was responsible for some 71,000 pounds of trash and about 33,000 pounds of recycling with a 31 percent rate of recycling items meant to be recycled.

Teitelbaum said she wants to get that number between 80 and 90 percent this school year. She also wants to install a larger in-house composting at the school. Right now, the school has a 70-gallon composter from the city’s sanitation department, but it’s only big enough to collect snacks and breakfast.

“This is a lot of work,” Teitelbaum said. “This is what it takes — a lot of parent help.”

The mother of three was at Northeast on Thursday, juggling her one-year-old daughter in a baby carrier while guiding students to the right bin, alongside fellow volunteers Alyssa Bernstein, Maya Noren and Gena Russo.

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The Green Works Committee is made up of parents, teachers and administrators looking for ways to reduce school waste. Already this year, with the help of about 20 parent volunteers and Bartlett Arboretum, they’ve started a garden. They also have parents in the cafeteria each day for three hours at lunch this month to teach students how to sort their food. The hope is to start a momentum that will continue all year.

“Many of the kids are doing this at home,” Noren said. “It seems like an odd thing for the school not to be backing it up.”

Dan Colleluori, supervisor of recycling and sanitation, said he’s working to secure garbage-container inserts, so schools can redirect discarded liquids down the drain.

Chartwells, the district’s dining services provider, is working on implementing a food waste reduction program that includes a food-sharing table for students to leave unopened food they don’t eat for other students.

But while these initiatives take a slow hold across the district, these parents continue what they consider to be a worthwhile effort. Teitelbaum joked her one-year-old needs oceans to swim in and serves as a reminder as to why these parents are working so hard to save the planet.

“Our kids get it,” Bernstein said. “They’re all in. We want to make a better world for our kids, and our kids get it.”

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265 ;@erin_kayata

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