Dressed like a professional hazardous materials team wearing plastic gloves, masks, and coveralls, a group of Andover High School students braved plummeting temperatures on a recent afternoon to methodically analyze piles of garbage.
More than 500 pounds of debris, including bits of food and containers that had been tossed in the trash by students during the day’s four lunch periods, was sorted into piles to determine how much of the garbage could be composted or recycled.
The students who conducted the waste audit were high school seniors, participants in an environmental sustainability internship course, the first of its kind in Andover. The students enrolled in the class are on a mission to save the planet and, in the process, make Andover High one of the most environmentally friendly high schools in the state.
“We’re trying to be catalysts for internships across the curriculum,” said Andover High principal Christopher Lord, noting that each of the 22 students in the program is paired with adult mentors who work with the teens on projects that correlate with their individual interests. “We’re getting the students out into the community, and the community into the school.”
Two seniors aided a local effort to get the town designated a “Solarize Massachusetts” community, a distinction awarded Andover earlier this month. The program allows residents and businesses to buy small-scale solar electricity systems at discounted prices. The students are helping to draft marketing materials for the initiative.
Others are developing an educational campaign to let town residents know which items can — and can’t — be tossed in their curbside recycling bins. One student is studying the impact of a burgeoning deer population on the biodiversity of Andover’s conservation lands.
But on this cold day, the focus was on biodegradable food trays, plastic bottles, and discarded sandwiches, items that students had thrown in the garbage rather than the school’s recycling and composting bins.
After spending an hour sorting and weighing the trash, the data was in: Starting with 516 pounds of garbage, the students had whittled it down to about 92 pounds. Nearly half of the refuse tossed out in the cafeteria on the day of the audit wasn’t trash at all, but compost. In all, 233 pounds of compost was recovered, along with 100 pounds of plastics and paper, 36 pounds of liquids, and 55 pounds of recyclable trays.
“This gives us data as to what our ideal waste targets should be each day,” said Steven Kimball, 17, the student who organized and planned the waste audit with the help of his mentor, Melanie Cutler, a biology and environmental science teacher at the high school.
The students’ data revealed that with full participation, the high school’s trash rate could be cut by 82 percent, greatly reducing the amount of waste headed for the landfill and improving the bottom line for the district. Andover’s waste removal fees are based on weight, so removing compostables, recyclables, and fluids from the waste stream would curb disposal costs.
Kimball plans to use the data to launch a recycling campaign, to “revamp student interest in recycling and get them into it.” He said participation in the school’s composting program, which started three years ago, has started to wane. Ideally, he would like Andover High to embrace a “zero waste” philosophy, which encourages the reuse of all products.
“Everyone’s getting on the bandwagon to get to zero waste,” said Carolyn Dann, municipal assistance and regional recycling coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “Because of what the students are doing here, we’ll be able to make data-driven decisions about where to go with the program in the future.”
Kimball’s goal for this year is to reduce the amount of trash at Andover’s 1,799-student high school by 60 percent. The waste audit served as a kickoff for the school’s “Be Seen Going Green” campaign, which Kimball hopes to introduce at the high school next month.
According to Stephen Fink of Sustainable Andover, a collaborative network of volunteer groups, the waste audit already has helped boost awareness.
“Parents say they’re recycling at home because of what you’re doing here,” Fink told the students.
“This internship course is really proving to be a model that we hope can spread to other courses and subjects,” added School Committee vice chairwoman Annie Gilbert, who also stopped by during the audit. “We love this program because it provides the students with real-world experience; it’s perfect for seniors as they prepare to take the next step and move beyond high school.”