Lawrence fifth-graders start cafeteria recycling program
On Friday, like every school day for the past three weeks, fifth-graders Joe O’Keefe and Owen Musser are taking out the recycling from their cafeteria at Cordley Elementary School, 1837 Vermont St. Before they do so, there are usually a few mistakes to correct. They sift through the recyclables, picking out a few misplaced items.
“Mashed potatoes are not recyclable,” Owen says as he removes a cup of potatoes from the blue recycling bin and drops it in the nearby trash can.
Owen, Joe and Casey Kong, a fifth-grader at Quail Run, started the cafeteria recycling program last month. Beginning in September, the three students researched, planned, and implemented the program as part of an outside project, but they have taken it beyond those requirements.
Joe, Casey and Owen said they realized the success of the program depended on other students, so one element of the project was educating their peers — making posters to hang in the cafeteria and handouts to send home — to explain why recycling is important and how to do it right.
“We realized that lots of people didn’t know where their trash is going, and thought that it just disappeared — which made our (project) name, Green Hole — because where do people think their trash is going, in a black hole?” Joe said.
Each school day, Joe and Owen take time during recess or after school to take the recyclables to the city recycling bin outside. On Friday, Casey was also there to help. The three wear matching Green Hole T-shirts that Owen designed. The shirts depict a plunging grid to represent a black hole, but instead it’s green and being sucked into it are various recyclable items.
The boys’ recycling project was for First Lego League, a science and engineering challenge that encourages kids to think of and implement solutions to real-world problems. Their project, which they entitled Green Hole, was named the top entry of 40 in their age group, qualifying it to advance to the next stage of the competition on Jan. 16.
“We always learned about recycling on Earth Day and how it could save the earth, but at school we never actually did much about it,” Casey said, explaining why he thought the project mattered.
Though the project was not without its challenges. After the team identified the problem they wanted to solve, researched about the city’s recycling program and came up with a plan to implement recycling in the cafeteria, things still didn’t fall perfectly into place. Casey said one of the first things they encountered was resistance to adding the bins and the responsibility of emptying them.
“They were all saying it would be too challenging, it would just add to the custodians’ workload, when it’s the same amount of trash, just some of it’s being divided and put into the recycling bins,” he said. “We had to work around that, so now Owen and Joe are volunteering.”
The students also knew they needed to explain the city’s rules of recycling, so they made posters for the cafeteria as well as a board with actual items pinned to it, one side labeled as recyclables and the other as trash. But still, they said that they didn’t think that was enough; they also wanted to catch the attention of their fellow students. To do that, they made a YouTube video.
“Joe plays Todd, who is a fifth-grader, and he wants to recycle his yogurt container but there’s no recycling bin,” Owen explains. “So he gets intrigued and starts researching about recycling, and then he’s so overwhelmed he faints and goes into this big dream sequence.”
“Where he names off all the stuff that (is) recyclable,” Joe adds.
Scott Cinnamon, the principal at Cordley, said he thinks the boys’ efforts have been fantastic — researching, implementing, and dealing with the challenges that came up.
“There were additional challenges that they didn’t consider at the beginning, but they were always motivated to kind of problem-solve and really think it through,” he said.
The students are still in the process of trying to implement the recycling program at Casey’s school, Quail Run. But as fifth-graders, they also don’t want it to stop once they move on to middle school next year.
“Because what would happen when we’re not here?” Joe said. “We would just rely on fifth-grade volunteers, which might not happen.”
On Monday, the three are heading to the Lawrence school board meeting and plan to pitch a district-wide program to add recycling bins to all cafeterias. The board’s meeting is at 7 p.m. in the district offices, 110 McDonald Drive, and the students said they plan to explain their project during the time allotted for public comment.