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Innovating for Sustainability with Director of Learning & Innovation, Mark Silberberg

LREI
In my work this term with middle schoolers and high schoolers, we’ve talked a lot about the various paths that innovation strategies can take as we design for social change. We’ve paid particular attention to efforts that seek to:
  • improve practice by changing one or more elements of a system already in place,
  • transform practice by using some aspect of a system for a different purpose, or
  • disrupt practice by examining the purpose of a system and coming up with a completely different way to achieve the same goal.
With respect to innovation efforts at LREI,  we are always guided by our mission. So it is not surprising that students and faculty have commented for many years on one area of significant misalignment of practice with our mission: how we deal with food waste. It’s a perfect design challenge to explore innovation strategies in the context of improvement, transformation, and disruption.
 
We have engaged in small-scale experiments in compositing, but we have not developed a comprehensive strategy grounded in sustainable practice to address this challenge. We even spoke to one of the pig farmers at the Union Square Market about taking our food waste, but the practicalities of storage and transportation ended up being significant roadblocks to realizing this creative solution. To its credit, the NYC Department of Sanitation has been expanding its collection of organic waste from schools, but most independent schools, LREI included, are not eligible for participation in this program.
 
We’ll continue to advocate for our inclusion in this program, but we were not content to wait for others to solve the problem for us. So we started to look around and ask questions about our practices. An early discovery was that because of limited storage space (especially at Sixth Avenue) we’ve had to contract with a private carter to pick up our garbage on days when the Department of Sanitation does not. This led us to a number of important reframing questions:
  • “What if we shifted the funds being allocated for trash carting to composting?”
  • “What if we saw garbage trucks as potential bulk haulers of composting materials and not just material headed to the landfill?”
Some additional inquiry and a conversation with an LREI parent led us to the composting operation at McEnroe Farms and through them to the Royal Waste carting company. A few more conversations and our Cater to You team and maintenance staff were on board and we were ready to pilot an organics pick-up program at our Sixth Avenue campus. One unanticipated benefit of this new plan was that Royal Waste would pick up all of our recyclable materials and that these materials did not need to be sorted into different bins. We hoped that this would help to solve the related though smaller scale problem of reducing the amount of recyclable materials that were inadvertently entering the landfill stream.
 
So last spring, we moved a bit closer to closing this mission misalignment gap. Here’s some data we collected over the first few weeks of the project that shows we are on the right track:
 
The quick takeaway is that this simple change in practice resulted in a substantial reduction in the amount of material that we were sending to the landfill and a corresponding increase in the repurposing of our food waste material. It’s telling to see that the bulk of our waste is actually organic material that previously had just been mixed in with our garbage. We also saw an increase in the amount of recyclable material getting into the right stream.

More Data:   
  • Our compost material was about 3607 lbs per month or a waste diversion of about 1.80 tons from landfill to recycling via composting.
  • Our capture of recyclable materials represented a waste diversion of about 2.11 tons per month from landfill to recycling.
  • We also recycled about 2.0 cubic yards of tied/bundled cardboard per night.
These efforts required some rethinking of workflows in the cafeteria and the adoption of more mindful practices throughout the building. Almost immediately after starting the program, I heard from a group of concerned third graders about how we were going to handle the food waste in the early childhood classrooms. These students eat in their rooms so do not have access to our organics bins. I asked them to do some research on possible solutions and by the end of the year they came back with some thoughtful recommendations. We are about to embark on some changes to address these issues and our Fourth Graders will take on a leadership role in these efforts.

Also, in conjunction with the student leaders in the High School Red is Green organization, we have just expanded the organic waste/mixed recycling efforts to the 40 Charlton Street campus. These student leaders have worked with faculty and administration to roll out this program to complete this phase of these mission-aligned efforts.
There is still work to be done:
  • Better student-created signage for the program.
  • Reduction of food waste during lunch through more mindful eating practices.
  • More intentional practices around the purchase and use of recyclable materials.
  • Developing curricular programs to better help students to understand the cycles and systems connected to our production and use of food and recyclable materials.
  • Continuation of in-place small-scale composting efforts to help students understand the science behind composting and the value of their efforts.
  • Better coordination reuse purposes for recyclable materials.
  • Coordinating visits to the McEnroe farm to better understand how they compost at scale.
What we’ve learned from this design challenge is that innovation and learning go hand in hands at LREI.

Mark Silberberg, Director of Learning and Innovation
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