Students study trash, look for ways to reduce it

Two Homer elementary schools are cleaning up their act by looking at the amount of amount of single-use plastics are thrown out. Single-use plastic waste is most often produced at lunch time and is a significant threat to the marine ecosystem, said Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies Marine Debris Coordinator Henry Reiske.

West Homer Elementary School’s three fourth-grade classes conducted a waste audit Nov. 7-11. The students found that over the course of the week the school’s students used 524 plastic foam lunch trays and 4,229 single use plastic items, such as utensils, straws and plastic wrappers. West Homer was built without a dishwasher, so students’ lunches are served on plastic foam trays that are thrown away after one use.

“A lot of the kids didn’t realize the trays were thrown away every day because we stack them to save space in the trash,” said West Homer Elementary fourth-grade teacher Shellie Worsfold.

The plan for West Homer’s zero waste initiative is still forming. The plan is to work on both the plastic foam trays and a to-be-decided type of single use plastic. Worsfold wants a dishwasher to be put in the school kitchen so the school can replace the foam trays with reusable, washable trays.

Joanna Green’s sixth graders at McNeil Canyon Elementary have decided to focus on the packages of utensils provided during the lunchtime for the students. Wrapped in plastic, each packet has a napkin, a plastic spork and a straw. The students wish to switch to reusable utensils and straws that can be purchased separately to reduce waste. McNeil Canyon has a dishwasher, so students already have reusable trays, unlike West Homer.

“The kids, if they need a napkin or a straw, they have to get the whole package. We want reusable sporks or utensils that can be washed like the trays so we don’t have to have all the extra packaging,” Green said.

Green’s students are counting the number of sporks and straws thrown away, graphing them, and then reusing the waste to make an artistic representation of a dragon, the school’s mascot. In three days, the students collected 109 sporks and straws.

“We’ll make the dragon in the spring when there are enough sporks,” Green said. “But we’ll keep the graph of week by week for everyone to see.”

The effort to review the amount of plastic waste created at the schools is part of the $86,512 Stop Marine Debris grant received by CACS from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that will move to include businesses in the plastic waste audit in early 2017. CACS’s grant is one of 12 awarded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program in 2016.

Homer’s schools aren’t alone in the effort to reduce plastic use, but are just two out of a total of 10 schools on the Kenai Peninsula and in Anchorage that are taking a hard look at the waste produced and how it can be reduced.

Polaris K-12, Chapman, Razdolna, Connections, Kachemak Selo, Port Graham, Nanwalek and Soldotna Montessori are also involved in the zero waste program. Most of the schools have one class participating, though West Homer and Soldotna Montessori have three classes involved.

The program started with an overnight trip to Ageya Wilderness Center and a beach clean-up where students learned about waste reduction, ecosystems, and the local marine environment, Reiske said.

Most of the schools will go on a second trip across the bay later in the school year where the students must plan how to produce as little waste as possible by designing meals and making decisions about what they take.

Guided by a teacher, the students are keeping track of the amount of plastic waste is created at lunchtime and working on solutions to reduce the amount of plastic used throughout the year. All participating schools will also receive lunch kits with reusable items from CACS to give to every student. The lunch kits will be personalized to each school’s student needs, depending on what kind of plastic waste they generate.

When students bring lunch from home, many of the items used to transport and eat the lunch are made from plastic, Reiske said.

Plastic shopping bags, plastic zip-close bags, disposable water bottles and packaging for pre-made foods are several offenders in the plastic waste arena. Though many may not think about what happens to after tossing them in a trash can, plastic items can end up in marine ecosystems and harm the wildlife. Though entanglement, such as with nets, is the biggest killer of marine life when it comes to plastics, ingestion is another serious concern.

Birds and sea turtles will eat plastic bags without recognizing that it is not food, Reiske said. The plastic then sits in their stomachs keeping the animal full, unable to be digested, until the animal starves to death.

Plastics also can affect the environment it is in on a smaller scale. Though plastic is not biodegradable, it does break down into smaller pieces that can be mistaken for plankton. Additionally, as plastic sits in water the chemicals used to give it specific attributes — such as color or pliability — leach out into the water.

However, students are not the only source of lunchtime trash. As a second part of the grant, CACS will work with businesses in Homer, Kenai and Soldotna to look at the amount of waste produced by single-use plastics and how it can be reduced, Reiske said. CACS is in talks with Green Star, a non-profit that helps businesses reduce waste and pollution and certifies them as a green business, about collaborating with CACS’s zero waste program.

“Green Star is in Anchorage-area through Alaska Forum on the environment. They go into businesses, do an audit, and make suggestions. The businesses consider those suggestions, take steps to reduce waste and, as long as they are reducing, they become accredited,” Reiske said. “We are working with them to bring it down to the Kenai Peninsula or help us create our own so there will be a more visible incentive for businesses using these kinds of practices.”

CACS is currently creating a plan for the business portion of the zero waste program. They have letters of support from some businesses and hope to start signing interested businesses up in January 2017. The goal is to have at least 20 businesses signed up, Reiske said.

Anna Frost can be reached at