Zero-waste initiative builds community at Oak Park schools

Community Foundation melds education, sustainability goals at Holmes School

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing Reporter

About three years ago when Michelle Vanderlaan was tapped to become PTO president at Holmes Elementary School in Oak Park, she knew her school community was in transition.

Three different principals had headed Holmes in the last five years. Partly as a result, the PTO was fragmented and many parents were worried with a new principal on deck.

"We really needed something very positive to galvanize the community around," says Vanderlaan, owner of Sugarcup Trading in Oak Park.

Having had been in conversation with Gary Cuneen, the executive director of Seven Generations Ahead (SGA), Vanderlaan knew his nonprofit sustainability group was preparing to launch a new concept, Zero Waste Schools, and looking for a local elementary school to pilot the program.

But there was a caveat: a 40-page grant proposal had to be quickly co-written, and one significant funding source, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, required that Holmes undergo a comprehensive school waste audit in less than a week and one-half.

Seed funding from two additional sources was also being sought — the Lumpkin Foundation and the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, a local and philanthropic nonprofit corporation, Vanderlaan says.

"I went to Suzie Hackmiller, who was also new in her role as principal at Holmes, and pitched the idea," Vanderlaan says. "Suzie said, 'Yes, let's do it,' and from that moment I knew that Suzie was amazing."

Showing the money

Happily, the seed funding was granted, including a $7,500 strategic grant from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation's Communityworks endowment (To learn more about CF's traditional and strategic grant-making process, visit

Soon thereafter, SGA began strategically guiding the process, especially the learning piece, while Vanderlaan galvanized the PTO, and Hackmiller rallied everyone else. To kick it off, she hand-picked a small group of influential student leaders who would learn about zero waste practices and model them in the school's cafeteria, even educating their fellow students about where all those food scraps, recyclable refuse and throwaway garbage was going.

To prep them, Cuneen took the Zero Waste Ambassadors on field trips to a landfill site; Working Bikes, a recycling cooperative that retools and sends two-wheeled bikes to Third World countries; and Green City Market in Chicago to chat with local farmers about the benefits of using compost in growing sustainable, organic foods.

"Going to the landfill probably was one of the most impressionable field trips we did because the kids saw mounds and mounds of white paper, in addition to everything else and were really adamant about recycling. The program really took off after that," Cuneen says.

Reducing their carbon footprint

In the school's cafeteria they scrapped the Styrofoam trays, sporks and excess napkins, and replaced them with reusable cafeteria wear, industrial dishwashers and scores of recycling bin options, which the staff placed in the lunchroom and everywhere else. In addition, a double-sided paper policy was instituted, and more hand dryers were installed in the school's bathrooms.

Further, to reduce and reuse its solid, organic waste, e.g. food scraps, Hackmiller purchased tens of thousands of worms for vermicomposting, and a huge, in-vessel Earth Tub composter. As of this writing, the compost is "just about cooked," and soon they will be spreading the nutrient-rich fertilizer on their organic community garden to help grow the edible veggies and herbs the students grew from seed in the classroom. In September, everyone will celebrate and sample their home-grown food during the annual fall harvest tasting event, Hackmiller says.

Implementing these conservational measures, the principal adds, has enabled her school to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint by diverting about 10,000 pounds of waste material away from the local landfill and into its day-to-day recycling and composting efforts.

Starting at home

Powering the educational effort and helping the program trickle up to "green" the parent community, too, says Vanderlaan, has been an inventive in-school incentive called Zero Waste Wednesdays. Students were encouraged to habitually carry their lunches from home in reusable containers, rather than Ziploc or other disposable bags. When the brown baggers complied, the kids received recognition, extra recess and in-class pizza parties.

Now in its third year of local stewardship, Holmes has added a team of fifth-grade students, Worm Buddies, to their eco-friendly initiative. These kids collect data on the school's six Worm Chalets to ensure the critters are fed and surviving. The Zero Waste Ambassador program is also still in place, Hackmiller says.

Last year, Beye, Hatch, Lincoln, Longfellow, Mann and Whittier received funding to form the SGA Zero Waste Cohort. This year, five schools are on board: Beye, Holmes, Irving, Longfellow, and Mann. In addition, three elementary schools in River Forest District 90 have learned from the Dist. 97 zero waste process and are now implementing their own zero waste programs.

Initial cohort results: Cuneen says that in 2008-2009, Dist. 97's six participating schools collectively realized a cost savings of $26,000, without renegotiating any waste management service contracts.

"I've been blown away by how sophisticated and savvy these kids are," says Vanderlaan. "It really does take a community to move towards being zero waste, and when we come together to do it, there are big, tangible results."

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Urban Worm from Phoenix  

Posted: March 30th, 2011 4:18 AM

Great work Oak Park! I've long thought that composting in the classroom is an excellent learning tool. The fifth grade Worm Buddies should get an Urban Worm tshirt for their efforts!

Jassen Strokosch from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 23rd, 2011 12:27 AM

Thanks for your great leadership on this project Michelle. This always one of my favorite project that we discussed at PTO Council. So glad to have watched it go district wide.

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