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UNL students dumpster dive for the benefit of LPS schools
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UNL students dumpster dive for the benefit of LPS schools

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For some reason (second thoughts, perhaps?) someone at Lincoln Southwest High School tossed a still-wrapped, untouched chicken sandwich into the trash last week.

The discarded sandwich joined a perfectly good, never-bitten-into plum, a few questionable pieces of trash mixed in with the more obvious throwaways: empty food containers and ketchup cups, bottles and banana peels, crumpled Doritos bags and used napkins.

Nine University of Nebraska-Lincoln students wearing plastic gloves and expressions registering varying levels of disgust sifted through about 20 bags of Southwest’s garbage Wednesday.

They were fulfilling a class assignment, an act of purposeful dumpster diving, separating the recyclable materials, the stuff that could go onto a compost pile and the remaining garbage that will end up in the landfill.

Christine Haney Douglass, who teaches the one-credit-hour course called Environmental Studies Orientation, put a positive spin on what was about to happen Wednesday.

“This is going to be fun,” she said. “This is going to be interesting.”

Once underway, Amelia Long, a UNL junior environmental studies major, judged it “pretty gross” — but also worthwhile, a lesson in what can and can’t be recycled or composted and an illustration of how everybody can do a better job.

“I kind of think it’s on all of us to do something, even if we aren’t in environmental studies,” she said.

One of the main goals of the environmental studies program is to get students into the thick of it, said program director Dave Gosselin.

“One of the core principles of the program is doing real work on real problems with real people,” he said, as students practiced what he preached.

Students who take the 100-level course help Lincoln Public Schools with its composting program by doing several waste audits of schools each semester, said Brittney Albin, LPS sustainability coordinator and a graduate of the UNL environmental studies program.

The UNL students also work on sustainability projects — everything from renovating courtyards to building pollinator habitats — with individual schools through the district’s voluntary Green Apple Day of Service.

In April, the class' work earned UNL’s environmental studies program an award from the U.S. Green Building Council and Green Schools National Network.

LPS schools began recycling 20 years ago and in 2002 it became a districtwide program. The district piloted its composting program with three schools in 2014 and this fall the final four schools came on board, so all 57 schools have lunchroom-based compost programs.

The UNL class began doing waste audits in 2015. It gave students experience, and did what LPS didn’t have the manpower or time to do, Albin said.

The audits tell schools how many pounds of recyclables and compost materials comprise their garbage. Albin said she tried to get as many baseline audits before schools began recycling so she could see how effective the programs were once they started.

Follow-up audits allow schools to see how they've improved and what else they might do.

“It’s really just a performance check of how we are doing with these programs,” Albin said. “It’s one thing to put the containers out there, but until you start digging around in those containers, you don’t know if it’s being used to its full potential.”

Take Southwest, which was one of the schools in the pilot program.

The audit showed that of the 273 pounds of waste UNL students sifted through, 54% of it could have been composted and nearly 11% could have been recycled. Also, it indicated that lots of students make trips to the nearby Juice Stop during the day.

Albin will share the report — which will include pictures to show the volume of lightweight recyclables (lots of bottles don’t weigh very much) — with school administrators.

The school could make changes, such as putting a recycling container in a different part of the school, though further changes will likely come down to education.

Also, just because more than half of the waste could have been composted doesn’t necessarily mean the school is doing a bad job, Albin said.

Because compost containers are only in the cafeteria, there’s no way to compost paper towels disposed of in the bathroom, or food containers students bring in from outside the school or eat from in class.

Schools could choose to do a buildingwide composting program, but that would be a big undertaking, especially for a high school, Albin said.

Haney Douglass said the amount of work her students face at audits depends on the quality of a school's sustainability efforts. And it can be an eye-opener for her students.

One group of students spent two hours going through waste that filled a large garbage bin at a school. Two years later, after the composting program was well underway, a group doing a follow-up audit spent 15 minutes going through two bags of trash. 

“That’s the difference you guys make,” she told those students. 

With all schools on board, Albin estimates that this year, LPS will divert 3 tons of waste through its composting program and 2.5 million pounds through its composting and recycling programs combined.

The audits allow UNL students to see how the practices of neighboring businesses affect the school’s efforts (think Juice Stop cups), and to see evidence of Albin’s efforts to work with the district’s nutrition services department to eliminate as many nonrecyclable materials such as Styrofoam as possible.

Most students gain an appreciation for the work and the importance of making changes even if they don’t end up working in the sustainability field, Haney Douglass said.

“Students are learning some very valuable lessons,” she said.

Even if they never do figure out why somebody threw away a perfectly good chicken sandwich.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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