Sarah Norwood - Kids show their passion for recycling

Sometimes opportunities present themselves as challenges. This was definitely the case when, as a new teacher in 2004, I was asked to take over the recycling program at Willamina Elementary School.

At the time, I couldn’t see the potential for opportunity; it was just more work added to my overflowing pile.

Upon examination, I thought it might not be too difficult to send two fifth-grade students around with a giant recycling bin one day a week to collect paper. I believed my biggest problem would be finding students willing to do it.

To my surprise, a group of fifth graders (now high school seniors) were incredibly motivated, passionate and hard working. We had so many volunteers that, to allow more to participate, I had to create more jobs in the recycling area. The “Green Team” was established that year: six responsible, safe, young leaders.

Being on the Green Team was a privilege, not a punishment.

Pushing around a large bin and tossing paper into it lasted about two weeks. The Green Team quickly became enamored with all there was to be done, and they were going to do it. They made sure each classroom in the building had a receptacle for recycling, and they began to educate teachers and students about which items could be recycled.

Western Oregon Waste was happy to accommodate our rapidly growing recycling efforts and jumped in to assist with some education. The list of items we collected for the recycling bins increased.

One of the more difficult jobs the Green Team took on was lovingly called “Wash ’n’ Squash.” Each day, we collected all milk and juice cartons from breakfast and lunch for the whole school. The Green Team then washed, squashed and recycled them. Their efforts soon resulted in decreasing our school’s daily garbage from 13 large bags to one-and-a-half. Now, that’s recycling!

After these efforts, we became aware of the Oregon Green School program. To qualify, the Green Team conducted its first trash audit on the elementary school. We asked custodians to save all garbage from the building for one entire day, minus the restrooms and cafeteria. We dumped it all out and sorted it into piles: compost, recycling and true garbage. We then weighed the piles and turned in the results.

In spring 2007, Willamina Elementary became an official Oregon Green School. During Willamina’s annual Arbor Day celebration, we planted trees in the park with the mayor.

I was astounded at the fervor and dedication demonstrated by these students. They continued to take on more tasks, and they loved it all. Each year, I trained a new Green Team and watched as their ideas turned into realities.

One parent came in for parent-teacher conferences and asked if I was aware of her son requiring the family to recycle and compost at home. I restrained myself from giggling and replied, “I was not aware of that, but I’m glad he is teaching his family what he learns at school.”

One class wanted to make the whole year trash-free. Custodians built two giant outdoor composters for fruits, vegetables, paper products and pencil shavings. We recycled everything we could.

The largest problem was cellophane wrappers. Creatively, the wrappers were turned into stuffing for a giant spider at Halloween and a huge snowman in winter. It was a tough year. I’m not sure classrooms were ever meant to be trash-free. We tried, and I’m certain students still remember that year!

Each year, our efforts expanded. In 2011, we added Willamina middle and high schools to our recycling efforts and became an Oregon Green School — Merit Status. Custodians began using only environment- and child-friendly cleaning products. They upgraded lighting and windows for energy efficiency.

On any given day, my classroom has boxes overflowing with empty glue sticks, glue bottles, Capri Sun pouches, ink cartridges and chip bags. A wonderful company, Terracycle, pays us to send them these items; we use the money to buy supplies for recycling.

I really wanted to see our school and students get recognition for all their hard work. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education announced its first-ever award to recognize schools for efforts in sustainability. What are the odds that a small school in rural Willamina could compete with schools of all sizes nationally? However, the award was tied to Oregon Sustainable Schools, so we had nothing to lose by applying.

A few months later, Willamina Elementary was named one of 78 schools nationwide to receive the U.S. Green Ribbon Schools award. In addition, we took first place in Oregon for Sustainable Schools overall and for social sustainability. An astonishing amount of work from students and staff won these awards.

For me, though, the real reward has been watching students become eager to do good things and seeing their drive to do more. I always wanted my students to learn from me, but, in the end, I learned just as much from them.

It still amazes me that such a small school can have so many dedicated, motivated, talented young leaders.

Guest writer Sarah Norwood graduated from Linfield College in 2003 and received her administrative license from Portland State University. She teaches and serves as vice principal at Willamina Elementary. She lives with her husband and three children in McMinnville. They love to travel and explore new places.




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