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Sixth-grader Ella Comerford-Barnett wanted to make her world a better place. She had everything she needed to see her plan through: a vision, a passion, and most importantly, a partner in crime. When she had an idea to reduce waste at Rousseau McClellan School 91 (IPS 91), she knew precisely who to turn to: her closest friend, Sophie Raes.
Now the girls are in eighth grade, and during that time they cultivated their plan into a thriving zero-waste cafeteria system. As of October 2017, the pair had reduced cafeteria waste by an astounding 75 percent. The school dropped from filling three trash bags for every lunch period to filling only one for each of the five lunch periods.
Only one trash can stands in the IPS 91 cafeteria. It is flanked by other waste-reducing bins, such as for recycling and for liquids. Raes and Comerford-Barnett remain ambitious as they plan to add a compost bin to the cafeteria’s collection. They have been mentored and inspired by Jim Poyser, Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana (ECI), and his annual Climate Camp. Comerford-Barnett attends Climate Camp every year and credits Poyser for his instrumental help for the new system. IPS 91 was the first school to commit to a zero-waste cafeteria through ECI’s ongoing project.
To help students learn how to sort their trash, Raes and Comerford-Barnett trained over 70 students to be Cafeteria Rangers. These volunteer Rangers stand at the ready to coach their peers, answer questions about sorting and occasionally retrieve stray materials with their trusty gloves on. If a student is unsure of how to sort their trash, they rely on the faithful Rangers.
The Rangers are also essential to the cafeteria’s food rescue initiative. During lunch periods, a Ranger will travel through the cafeteria with a cart to collect unopened food from students. These food items are safely stored until they are delivered to a food pantry. The school fosters ongoing partnerships with Boulevard Place Food Pantry, Wheeler Mission, and Neighborhood Fellowship. Most recently, they joined the IPS school district in donating food to Gleaners Food Pantry for COVID-19 relief.
Launching the zero-waste cafeteria system has improved more than just recycling and food rescue. Thanks to the support of their mentors and their school, the two heroines have created a new culture of sustainability and empathy at IPS 91. What started out as uncomfortable change has transformed into second nature for students.
“I don’t know if they would understand it if we went back to what we did before,” says Raes.
By introducing these crucial habits to a student body upwards of 500, with grades ranging from Pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade, students learn at an early age the importance of sustainability. Most importantly, each student is a part of the process. Everyone is now familiar with how recycling can affect their lives. For the youngest students, it is just like learning their numbers and the alphabet.
“Now there are kids who have only been at 91 with this system,” says Comerford-Barnett.
In a few years’ time the building will be full of students who will only have known this waste-reducing system. IPS 91 will not be the only school. Already, IPS 91 shared their success with Noble Crossing Elementary and Oaklandon Elementary.
Written by Holland Cluff