Exercising Democratic Rights to Reduce Cafeteria Waste

A group of students from Great Falls Elementary and Cooper Middle Schools collected over a hundred signatures for a petition on reducing cafeteria waste. They then delivered the petition to Congressmen Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer’s offices on Sept. 1. The students were inspired to take action after observing many unnecessarily wasteful practices while having lunch. These practices included using disposable utensils and trays, wrapping main courses in plastic, and forcing younger students who buy lunch to take a milk carton, many of which were thrown away full. Some cafeterias also left milk refrigerators open for the duration of the lunch period, failed to label recycling bins, and threw away vegetable waste that could have been composted.

The fact that some schools adopt more sustainable practices shows that it’s possible to change. For example, from talking with experts working on these issues, we learned that schools in Brooklyn participate in a composting program, which would be even easier for schools in Great Falls with gardens. We also learned that American University and George Washington University’s cafeteria switched to reusable packaging, and other schools have switched to milk dispensers that allow students to only take the amount of milk they plan to drink.

Given the number of students in Fairfax County, small changes could have large impacts. “If every student in the county threw away their plastic utensils daily, after one year, the waste  would weigh as much as two Statues of Liberty,” explained sixth grader Maura Campione, president of the Great Falls Elementary chapter of the group.

At first, Congressional staff were very supportive of our initiative but suggested that we address these issues at the local and state levels. We feel the solution needs national, state, and local cooperation, and we pointed to national recycling laws in many Scandinavian countries that proved successful. Congressional staff promised to look at these laws and we committed to engage our school board, county and state legislature as well. This may be challenging because, although we learn about Congress in school, our local and state government structures are less familiar. We welcome our local leaders to step up and join us in this campaign.