Darrington Elementary School fourth grader Brayden Parris, 9, fills up his cup with chocolate milk from one of the schools new milk dispenser during lunch on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington Elementary School fourth grader Brayden Parris, 9, fills up his cup with chocolate milk from one of the schools new milk dispenser during lunch on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington school reduces lunchroom waste with new milk dispensers

Milk cartons generally aren’t accepted by recycling centers in Snohomish County. Dispensers could be a solution. And they save milk too.

DARRINGTON — Students were more excited than usual to form lines in the lunchroom one morning last month at Darrington Elementary School.

The school unveiled two new milk dispensers, allowing students to fill reusable cups with fat-free chocolate or original milk straight from a spigot. The chocolate option, though, was preferred among the fourth and fifth graders in line. Some went back for seconds.

School staff collaborated with Waste Management through a new program encouraging schools to install milk dispensers instead of offering disposable milk cartons at breakfast and lunch. Recycling facilities typically don’t accept those cartons.

“The little cartons filled up our trash cans every day,” said Amy Belknap, food service director for the district.

Another benefit of milk from dispensers: Students say it tastes better. The gallon-sized bags of milk inside the dispensers are under constant refrigeration, Belknap said. Her best guess is that students prefer dispenser milk because it is colder.

Darrington Elementary School students use a lever to fill up cups of milk from their school’s milk dispensers on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington Elementary School students use a lever to fill up cups of milk from their school’s milk dispensers on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Before the school switched to milk dispensers, Belknap said she often poured out 4 to 5 gallons of milk every day from cartons left behind by students. Since the dispensers were installed, that number has dropped to less than half a gallon.

It helps that students can control exactly how much milk they want, too. And now they also have the freedom to mix the two flavors, which many of them take advantage of.

Darrington Elementary is the first school Waste Management has partnered with in Snohomish County through this new program. The company hopes to expand it to other schools over the next year, said Joel Kohlstedt, the company’s partnership manager.

Of the three Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle), Kohlstedt said this program focuses on the most important: reduce. Program leaders aim to decrease the amount of waste produced in school lunchrooms.

Darrington Elementary School students drink cups of chocolate milk with their lunches on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington Elementary School students drink cups of chocolate milk with their lunches on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Inevitably, sending less garbage to landfills will prevent challenges associated with waste sorting — especially with materials like milk cartons that aren’t made of pure paper and are less appealing to manufacturers.

Rubatino Refuse Removal doesn’t accept milk cartons or other paper-based containers, company spokesperson Joe Ogdon said. The Everett-based waste service used to send milk cartons to Cedar Grove Composting, but Cedar Grove staff now ask them not to, saying the waxy coating prevents the materials from breaking down organically.

WM accepts milk cartons from certain cities in Snohomish County, Public Education and Outreach Manager Karissa Miller said. But general Snohomish County guidance from WM says cartons should go in the garbage.

Darrington Elementary School fourth and fifth graders line up to get cups of milk during lunch on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Darrington Elementary School fourth and fifth graders line up to get cups of milk during lunch on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 in Darrington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

In south Snohomish County and along U.S. 2, if Republic Services collects your curbside waste, you can put milk, orange juice and even broth or soup cartons (which are often lined with aluminum on the inside) in your recycling bins. But remember to take the caps off and throw them out, said Wendy Weiker, sustainability and community outreach manager for Republic.

Cartons are flattened and bundled with other paper-based materials at Republic’s recycling facility. Then they’re sent to mills that turn the products back into paper. And caps contaminate the bundles of paper if they’re not removed.

With beverages like milk and orange juice, Weiker said recycling facilities and manufacturers prefer plastic jugs — with the caps on.

“Any plastic,” she said, “is better than that mixed paper.”

What questions do you have about recycling? Email Ta’Leah Van Sistine at the address below.

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460; taleah.vansistine@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

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