Chewonki Goes for Zero Waste

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This post was written by Betta Stothart Connor, Director of Communications at the Chewonki Foundation.

Chewonki unveiled Zero Waste, the fourth in its poster/online curriculum series, on April 5 at Memorial Middle School in South Portland. The poster was two years in development, and its unveiling included a press conference and a statewide rollout and contest.

“The Chewonki poster series grew out of a solid waste curriculum we developed almost twenty years ago.  With so much attention today on water and energy, we decided to really emphasize the release of the Zero Waste poster and curriculum,” said Chewonki president Willard Morgan. “Many of us at Chewonki have read the groundbreaking book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. The authors’ idea of moving toward a Zero Waste world through ecologically intelligent design and sound waste-management strategies and is a concept we want to promote and embrace.”

Willard was quick to admit, however, that Zero Waste is an ambitious goal and that Chewonki has some work to do before it can make any claims of its own about being a Zero Waste campus.

Sustainability coordinator Peter Arnold concurred. “Chewonki is working hard to be all that it can be in terms of sustainability initiatives, energy use, and carbon reduction. But claiming ‘Zero Waste’ is not a declaration we can make with a straight face yet,” he said. “Like many, we have some work to do, and we will do it publicly to show the challenges and opportunities of striving for Zero Waste in our operations.”

Recognizing that reducing its waste had to involve students and staff working together, Chewonki engaged Semester 46 to undertake a campus-wide evaluation of Chewonki’s waste stream and make a formal recommendation for how the organization could move toward a Zero Waste campus.

“We asked the students to become garbologists, to do dumpster dives and get to know our waste stream with intimacy, so they could help us reduce the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill or the waste-to-energy plant,” said Peter. Once the process was underway, things got really interesting, said Willard. Trash collection at Chewonki began to change; trash bins were reduced in number, made smaller than the recycling bins, and labeled “Landfill” instead of “Trash” to drive home the point. Within weeks the frequency of trash dumpster pick-ups was reduced by half.  “Reaction to the poster draft was really positive,” Willard added. “Knowing that we had hit on something big, we felt the curriculum and the challenge deserved statewide attention.”

The two-year effort to create a Zero Waste curriculum project began as a partnership with the Maine State Planning Office, which provides independent analysis to the governor and legislature on the development of the state’s economy and conservation of its natural resources. The concept was vetted with teachers and students throughout Maine, as well as experts in the field of waste management. Then it took on a corporate sponsor.

“When our communications director brought the project before Poland Spring CEO Kim Jeffrey, he immediately liked it,” Willard explained. Poland Spring signed on to a significant sponsorship and also proposed a statewide Zero Waste competition for middle schools. The “Zero Waste Challenge” was announced at the April 5 rollout, with students and principals from several middle schools pledging to enter.

This coming fall, any Maine middle school (or sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-grade class) can enter the contest, which involves completing a campus waste assessment; working steps 1–6 on the Zero Waste poster; evaluating the school’s progress; proposing how the school can move to Zero Waste; and writing a plan.

Entries are due in January 2012. An independent panel of judges will review the entries, and winners will be announced in February. First prize will be $3,000, second prize $2,000, and third prize $1,000. The funds can be used to implement a Zero Waste strategy on the campus of the winning schools, or they can be used toward a Zero Waste Outdoor Classroom program at Chewonki.

“The Zero Waste poster project has catalyzed triple bottom line thinking at Chewonki and we hope it does throughout Maine,” concludes Willard.  “Zero waste has environmental, financial and social benefits: We can reduce solid waste, save money, and engage students in meaningful education.”

For more information about the contest, go to www.chewonki.org/zerowaste. To see the online version of Zero Waste go to: http://www.chewonki.org/zerowaste/default.asp

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