In January 2016, 147 students and staff from Austin High School of Texas, USA, visited EARTH’s Caribbean campus in Costa Rica for six days. Among all the lessons the students engaged in, the ones about integrated waste management and composting really took root in their minds. Four of the teens were inspired to spearhead a district-wide project to compost all food scraps and biodegradable tableware from cafeterias and classrooms.
The Austin Independent School District – a system of 130 schools (including Austin High School) and 83,000 students – is committed to answering the city of Austin’s call to go zero waste by 2040. Currently, 95 of its schools feature food-waste bins for creating compost. Within the coming year, district administrators hope to equip the remaining 35.
Last year, the participating schools composted around 1,600 tons of waste. Without the leadership of Margaret Apperson, Lucia Hagert, Walker Holmes and Cameron Thompson, those nutrient-rich tons would have all ended up in a landfill.
The four students who pioneered the project spoke with us about the experience.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
Tell us about the project you implemented at your school.
Margaret: While at EARTH, we were introduced to the benefits of a waste-classification system and the many negative effects of our country’s particular approach to handling trash. Then, a week after the Costa Rica trip, we were assigned a project called TGPLAN, which means Think Globally, Problem-solve Locally, Act Neighborly. My project group was inspired by EARTH’s efficient and ecological waste-management methods, so we opted to concentrate on that issue by implementing a system of sectioned containers in our high school.
Walker: Composting gives everyone the opportunity to reduce their carbon emissions and help the environment. Our school now serves as a model for students and sends the message that we are concerned about the earth, our home.
What attracted you to this particular project?
Margaret: Waste management has always interested and energized me. My family has composted for as long as I can remember, and I have been a student representative on the “Keep Austin Beautiful” advisory council during my four years in high school. The council is in charge of keeping our school and the surrounding community clean, attractive, and, most importantly, respectful of the environment.
How was the implementation process?
Margaret: We worked two full years to get the containers installed and faced many setbacks, which was super frustrating. At times, we felt we weren’t being taken seriously because of our age. When the receptacles were finally installed, I was beyond happy, above all for having led such a large project. For me, it’s hugely satisfying that our campus community is composting and that our project has inspired other schools and families to construct their own systems.
Walker: We invested a lot of time and effort to get our campus composting. Reaching our goal was really gratifying.
What were the greatest challenges you faced?
Margaret: To bring our vision to life, we had to overcome many obstacles along the way. After a few months of working with the school district’s sustainability manager, we discovered she moved to California. So, it was back to square one! During our junior year, our principal helped us to become part of a green committee that didn’t work out. This year, after numerous emails and calls, we went to the district offices to present our case in person. And it worked!
What feedback have you received?
Margaret: The effects of this receptacle system have been overwhelmingly positive. The support we’ve received from the school’s staff and our classmates has been more than we could have hoped for.
Composting’s benefits are tremendous: the quantity of waste we send to the landfill has dropped enormously, the methane we emit into the atmosphere has been reduced, and what’s left we can use to nourish the soil. We hope to influence people to implement similar systems at home. Thanks to our work, we’ve even been on TV.
Why do so many young people lack interest environmental careers?
Margaret: My experience has shown me that kids simply don’t receive much exposure to the subject.
Walker: I believe many young people want to work with environmental issues but don’t know where to start. A great way to involve them in addressing these issues is starting projects (such as composting) that aren’t complicated and are open to the community.
ABOUT THEIR TIME AT EARTH
What activities did you do while at EARTH?
Lucia: We reviewed EARTH’s agricultural systems, saw how the University makes its own compost, learned about the impressive recycling projects in one of its gardens, and discovered how to create a “salchicha” (sausage) for easily growing produce. We also participated in waste-management workshops, a banana tour, and a visit to the communities of Argentina de Pocora and Talamanca where we worked with the Bribri indigenous peoples.
Which activity was your favorite?
Lucia: I loved the salchicha because it involved all of us. It was really great getting to work with everyday materials, things we all have at home. When I got back, my mom and I made a salchicha of our own. I also loved the animals at the University. I could have spent all day watching the cows and adorable piglets.
What inspired you to take what you learned and apply it at home?
Lucia: The University is able to reutilize and recycle 80 percent of the campus’ solid waste. We wanted to implement the separation system that we saw in the cafeteria and across campus. We decided on a system of three compartments – landfill, recycling, compost – which we call “Go for Three”. We hope it reduces waste at Austin High by 60 percent.
What did you think of Costa Rica?
Cameron: The visit to Costa Rica was one of my first times abroad. The trip offered me opportunities to explore cultures and practices I’d never been exposed to. Not to mention, the country is picturesque.
For her strong academic record and the successful implementation of the composting project, Lucia won a Morehead-Cain scholarship – a full, merit-based scholarship for demonstrated leaders to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Each year, EARTH University welcomes approximately 14,000 visitors to campus. They travel from nearby communities and faraway continents to participate in workshops, seminars, talks, private events, exchange programs, internships and more. EARTH’s Educational Tourism Unit facilitates access to social and environmental leadership training for people from around the globe through campus experiences that integrate hands-on ecological, agricultural, scientific, social, entrepreneurial and cultural studies.
To plan an event with EARTH’s Educational Tourism Unit, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. All programming is customizable to your specific needs and learning outcomes.