DOWNS - For at least a few Tri-Valley High School students, helping recycle was initially a nice way to get out of class. But something funny happened on the way to their waste-collecting duties: They became believers in recycling, and are encouraging others to do the same.
The Tri-Valley School District last summer was awarded a $10,000 state grant to work toward being a "zero-waste school." An audit of what the district threw away showed Tri-Valley disposing of 97,627 pounds of garbage each school year. High school biology teacher Krissy Vaux and sixth-grade teacher Suzanne Jones wrote a grant proposal with ideas on how to greatly reduce the amount of waste generated.
Vaux's general science students have been a key to getting a districtwide recycling program off the ground. There are now recycling bins and baskets in common areas as well as each classroom, offices and the teachers' lounge. Students and teachers are encouraged to recycle paper, plastic and aluminum cans.
Sophomore Kendra Plue was surprised how easy recycling could be.
"It's so easy. Normally people don't take the time, but if you look at it, it's just putting it in a different trash can," said Plue.
And the nagging of student and staff is lessening, said Vaux.
"At the beginning of the year, I would have to instruct people to 'Put that in the recycling bin,' but now they pretty much do it," said the six-year Tri-Valley instructor.
An educational tool
General science students at the high school collect from individual bins each Thursday and place them in what are called intermediate collection bins. They are then taken by custodial staff to a large roll-off Dumpster provided through an agreement with McLean County Disposal. When it fills, a call is made and the disposal company empties it.
Similar efforts are under way at the middle school; the Elementary School is next.
Middle school Principal Jill Lanier said students also are encouraged to turn in batteries, cell phones and ink cartridges to be recycled.
"I've been real impressed," said Lanier. "I've seen kids bring things from home. Newspapers are being recycled now instead of thrown away."
The district used $2,300 of the grant to purchase a turning point student response system, an interactive learning tool that relies on computer tests and instant feedback to students. The system flashes a question, such as "How much waste does Downs produce each year?" and students use remote computers to key in their answer.
They seem to be learning. A pre-test held last fall showed 21 percent of students were recycling literate. After using the system this past semester, the average skyrocketed to 84 percent.
But don't forget the practical reason for the zero waste grant. A mid-year report claimed their efforts had already eliminated more than 242 cubic yards of paper, 390 cubic yards of cardboard and 92 cubic yards of plastic and aluminum from ending up in a landfill.
Are worms next?
Vaux would like to expand the recycling program to include composting of food waste.
"Specifically we're going to try Vermi composting, which is composting with worms," she said.
"Worms?" asked more than one student in the classroom.
"Yeah, you don't know about that yet," chuckled Vaux.
Lanier hopes the compost generated will be sold as part of the annual geranium sale. Money raised will help develop the school's 12-acre outdoor education site, which will include an Illinois prairie, wetlands, and Illinois forest, as well as a trail running through the site.
The $10,000 grant came from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Bureau of Energy and Recycling. The grant covers two years, with $9,000 being awarded up front, with the remaining $1,000 coming after the grant work is completed.