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Sustainability Spotlight: Riverside Elementary School Tackles Trash


Last year, as Riverside’s green team was gaining momentum, they decided to focus on making their school-wide PTO events more sustainable. Spring Flings and Pasta Dinners are community-building at their best, but they also generate a ton of waste quickly. Long after the fun, tons of disposable plates and cups, each used for only a few moments, are left behind for custodians to clear.


This is the story of how the Riverside Green Team ditched disposables and shifted to reusables.

Starting with Drinks

water bottle spring fling flyer

The Green Team began by launching a “bring your own reusable water bottle” messaging campaign to families, and while this worked for some, most were simply too busy to absorb this message. To make a dent, the team realized they would need to use the school’s reusables. Like other elementary schools within the Princeton Public Schools District, Riverside has a supply of reusable dishes, or greenware, in each classroom for room parties. Could the Green Team use them for school-wide events? Would they have enough? Will they get lost? How will they be washed?


Last year, the Riverside Green Team started figuring out the answers to these questions and, over time, figured out a system to use reusable cups. Here’s how it works: Mary Beth Bardachino, a Special Education Instructional Assistant and PTO Green Team Co-Leader, collects the greenware cups from teachers and works with the kitchen staff to ensure dishwasher access. Before the event, the Green Team volunteers set up a table with water filling stations and use tape to divide tables into sections for each grade. As event attendees come to get a drink, they are instructed to write their names on the cups with washable markers and leave them on the table in the area of their or their child’s grades. The Green Team also generated a cute PSA video to help the community understand this effort.

Starting with drinks

Bonnie Funicello, Riverside’s PTO Green Team Co-Leader, noted that they’ve gotten better at this approach over time. “At the first event, we lost maybe 8 to 10 cups. For the second event, we lost a few, and for the third event, we lost none.” To reach this point, the Green Team had to ensure everyone understood that the cups belong to the teachers and were only to be used for a drink at the table. “Some parents got a little upset when we asked them to leave their cups at the table,” noted Bonnie, “but we persisted. Even if parents could be trusted not to lose or take the cups, we don't want the kids to see the cups floating around at the event.” Over time, everyone learned the system and began to bring a water bottle, or to comply with this approach.

At the end of these events, the Green Team gathers all the cups and brings them into the cafeteria to wash with the school’s dishwashing machine. MaryBeth then sorts the dishes into classroom boxes and delivers them back to the classrooms.


Moving to Meals


Riverside’s annual pasta night was on the horizon, and the Green Team was busy discussing another idea. Could they use reusable plates, too? They only had about 250 plates, so how would they manage the 600 attendees? Would they need to invest in more supplies? Emboldened with the success of the cups, they decided to start somewhere.
As before, they gathered a complete set of greenware from the teacher's classrooms before the event. During the event, the Green Team assigned one adult to use the kitchen dishwasher to ensure a constant supply of clean cups, bowls, and plates. The cafeteria dishwasher is powerful and cleans around 20 dishes in one minute. Items were given a quick dry to ensure no water droplets were on the plates and quickly put back into use.
With this process, volunteers kept a constant supply of clean dishes throughout the two-hour event and never had to rely on disposables. Even better, the kids got involved. The 5th graders, who host this event, quickly took over the dishwashing and restocking operation. They had such a blast ensuring its success that the adults had to make sure they took turns to allow others the fun of washing dishes.

students washing dishes

Afterward, Bonnie was surprised at how easy it was. “I cannot believe we have not been doing this all along,” she said.


Little Efforts Can Make a Big Impact


They may have just started this effort, but this Green Team has already made a difference, both financially and environmentally. A Sustainable Jersey for Schools grant paid for the classroom greenware used at these events, and the PTO no longer needs to purchase 1,500 cups, bowls, and plates annually. In addition, the greenware is made in the US from recycled #5 plastic and helps support a local, circular economy. Finally, switching from disposable plates, cups, and bowls to reusable versions reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Using upscorecard.org, we estimate that efforts to replace disposable serviceware with reusables yield a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the product's lifetimes.
 

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