MARYSVILLE — Elise Becker took the remains of her turkey and cheese sandwich out of its plastic bag and threw it in a green compost bin. The seventh grader tossed the plastic bag in a garbage can sitting next to it in the Marysville Middle School cafeteria.
Nearby students dumped leftover apple juice and milk into a white bucket and threw the containers and soda cans in a recycling bin.
By separating out recyclables, the liquids that could stymie the recycling process, food that can be composted, and just plain trash, Marysville Middle School students have kept nearly six bus-size loads of garbage from adding to the landfill this year.
Until last October, Marysville Middle School students ate off styrofoam trays, which were then tossed in the garbage, along with cans and other items that could have been recycled. As he carried dozens of bags of garbage into the trash bin each day, custodian Matt Edgerton thought there must be a better way.
He wrote about replacing the styrofoam trays with biodegradable ones, and entered his essay in a national “Everybody Wins” contest sponsored by the Service Employees International Union.
Last spring, the union flew him to Puerto Rico to attend a conference where the winner and two runners-up would be announced.
Edgerton began working as a custodian a decade ago, when he was still a student at Marysville’s alternative school. The farthest he had ever traveled was California, and he was thrilled just to be in Puerto Rico with his wife, enjoying the beaches, catamarans and rainforest.
Winning the grand prize was an incredible bonus. He received $5,000 in personal prize money and $20,000 in seed money for his project.
When he returned to Marysville, he set to work. He met with Marysville Middle School Principal Pete Lundberg, other custodians and kitchen workers and Marysville School District administrators and devised a plan to separate trash into multiple bins and use lunch trays that will break down in the compost bin.
“I’m excited about saving our landfill,” said Lundberg, who has a compost bin at home and drives a Subaru built in a “zero landfill” factory. “I’m excited about turning food waste into something that’s actually reusable, and I like the fact that in order for kids to do it right, they actually have to think about it.”
Since the program began in October, the school has gone from throwing away 56 bags of trash each day at lunch, to just five.
The success prompted the district to start it at the Marysville Secondary Campus, which has three schools, in mid-May. Edgerton plans to begin the program next fall at Allen Creek Elementary School, where he transferred.
He’s also traveled to other schools, including some in Portland, to share his ideas.
“I’m pretty proud that little small-town Marysville is leading the big cities on this,” he said.
Back in the lunchroom at Marysville Middle School, students have mixed feelings about the plan. Some say it’s a hassle to separate out everything, but most like the idea of helping the environment.
“Before we used, like a bunch of garbage bags,” Elise said after tossing part of her sandwich. “I like it better now because we can actually recycle. It makes us feel like we’re actually doing something good.”
Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292, firstname.lastname@example.org.