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Composting and environmental awareness gain traction at Basalt Middle School
Middle school students now operate the program and encourage their peers to participate
Basalt middle school
Jane Douglass’ eighth grade crew class is helping to lead the composting program at Basalt Middle School. Courtesy Basalt Middle School

Stop by Basalt Middle School on any given Friday during the crew advisory period, and you’re likely to find students pushing carts of recycling and composting containers through the halls. Their efforts are part of a year-long process to introduce a systemic recycling and composting program in nearly every classroom, common room and bathroom in the school. 

“We realized we had a lot of waste to divert,” said teacher Jane Douglass. She and art teacher Guinevere Jones, along with their crew students, have led the charge to create an easy system that all students could figure out how to use.

The teachers began the process last year by simplifying the trash and recycling bins out behind the school. A $3,000 grant from the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Environment Foundation allowed them to purchase color-coded recycling, trash and composting receptacles for every classroom. The school then signed on with EverGreen ZeroWaste, a waste diversion and education company that helps upwards of 20,000 customers compost each week in the region. The company provided a large composting dumpster, which they empty weekly, educational outreach and composting canisters for every classroom. 

After meeting with EverGreen Zero Waste’s Alyssa Reindel and Liz Chapman, the waste reduction and environmental health specialist for the city of Aspen, the crew students developed a lesson plan and taught their peers how to separate trash, recycling and composting materials. Every Friday, the two crew classes visit classrooms to empty bins and replace compostable bags.

Sixth grade student Dominik Pacheko admits that it was confusing at the beginning to figure out where everything went. “But now it’s easy,” he said. “We get to protect the environment and be role models so that other kids can start recycling and composting as well.”

That kind of student ownership was a key part of the program’s design. “Students are more inspired when it's coming from other students instead of the teachers,” Douglass said. “They've generated a lot of positive energy and take it really seriously. Just today we saw kids correct other kids in where to put their trash. They’ve really taken ownership of the program.”

The school's efforts have paid off. According to Reindel, BMS has diverted nearly 400 pounds of material a week from the landfill. The impact goes further than turning paper towels into compost, though. 

“It's also about protecting our air quality, water quality, and reducing greenhouse gases. It’s the equivalent of taking about two cars off the road per month,” said Reindel, who said that landfills aren’t effective in letting organic matter break down. 

“Landfills are sealed like a crypt and create an anaerobic situation. Organic matter is not decomposing like it would in nature with oxygen, sunlight and rain. That creates methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term.”

Reindel has been impressed with the quality of BMS’ compostables, which can be contaminated by something as simple as a Band-Aid in the wrong bin. “It’s perfect. Our drivers check every week.”

Student awareness has begun to trickle outside of the classroom as well. Some families have begun to compost themselves, while others are becoming more dedicated recyclers.

“I really didn't care about recycling before but now I try my best to compost and recycle always,” said eighth grader Jennifer Garcia. “I also tell my mom sometimes too.”

On Saturday, May 4, BMS students and EverGreen ZeroWaste customers will have the fruits of their labor returned to them. Twelve yards of compost will be delivered to Basalt Middle School, and customers are invited to come pick up a couple buckets from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The BMS garden will receive compost as well.

Now that BMS students better understand where to place their trash and why it makes a difference, plans are being drawn up to expand composting operations to the cafeteria next year as well. Jones hopes to offer an environmental education class, while Reindel suggests that next steps can also include engaging students on the contents of their lunch boxes with an eye toward becoming a zero waste school. Simple changes, such as exchanging a single use Ziploc bag for compostable wax paper bags or ditching the non-recyclable juice pouches in favor of a water bottle, can make a huge difference. For now, though, Jones and Douglass are thrilled with how students have embraced the change so far. 

“Hearing kids correct other kids, watching kids blow their nose and put the tissue in the compost bin has made it all worth it,” said Douglass. “It’s becoming ingrained and natural to them, and we are diverting a lot of previous trash to compost as a result.”

Jones sees the ripple effect expanding even further in the long run. “From the beginning, we wanted students to have true buy-in to the cause, and I hope that by doing it through the school we can show kids how easy it can be to change the world.”

For more information on EverGreen ZeroWaste, visit www.evergreenzerowaste.com.