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A handful of students gathered around a large heap of trash generated by that day’s lunch period at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School. They sorted through the rubbish, either with glove-clad hands or long trash claws.

When the group stepped back two hours later to survey their work, they were dismayed: A full 87 percent of what had been thrown out could have been recycled or composted.

Since that discovery in 2011, waste has been seriously reduced in the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. The district committed to a sustainability policy in 2017, and all schools now compost and recycle in their lunch rooms. In addition, the district switched from styrofoam to compostable plates.

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“It’s part of the shift to look for a zero-waste goal,” said Kate Crosby, the school district’s energy manager. “It’s a goal that a lot of colleges are talking about. We are happy to be a K-12 school district talking about it as well.”

Every school in the district now has three bins in the cafeteria — one for recycling, one for compost, and one for trash. At Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, daily lunchtime waste has been reduced from 40 bags to six.

The district has been moving toward low-waste goals for about seven years now. Kerin Crockett, a fifth-grade teacher involved in the initiative at Blanchard Memorial School, said the first step was understanding how much waste could be funneled elsewhere.

“It is important that other schools realize what is being created in their cafeterias,” Crockett said. “If you can embrace the mess of it, you can sort out your food, and that’s huge.”

The initiative didn’t face any pushback from the community, Crosby said. Since the system went into effect, she has received calls from eight other school districts searching for advice on implementing programs of their own.

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The advice she provides is simple: Just make sure you have support from school leaders and students. That includes working with student-run “Green Teams,” clubs that champion environmental causes.

Students “have to have buy in,” Crockett said. “What we saw happen with our recycling program was nobody knew where that went. They assumed the recycle fairies came at night, and it was just gone.”

Education, both peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student, has played a large role in implementing the program. Students created signs for the separate barrels. Older students were tasked with teaching younger ones how to sort.

Crosby said sorting trash has become normalized across all schools, but other compost experts report that it is simpler to implement changes in younger grades.

Conor Miller is the founder of Black Earth Compost, the company that picks up bins from Blanchard Memorial School. Miller and his team love getting elementary schools set up with compost systems because the young children are enthusiastic and determined. However, Black Earth doesn’t have the same level of enthusiasm for servicing high schools.

“They’re not as interested in it, and they have contamination problems,” Miller said. “They’ll put plastic wrappers in their paper lunch bags and throw it out. I would encourage other districts to start with elementary schools.”

Miller calls his compost the “best in the state,” admitting he might be biased. But he does boast that the mixture is nutrient-heavy, due to the large amount of food waste Black Earth has access to.

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Changing the system takes a considerable amount of time and effort, Crosby said, but was cost-neutral for the school district. Although a compostable plate costs more than double that of a styrofoam plate, the district saves money on reduced trash pickup.

While cost is important, district educators see the system as a worthy investment. The effects of a more sustainable cafeteria have already begun to spread — many students are embracing sorting and some have begun composting at home.

“What I want them to get out of fifth grade science is that they can take care of the planet in their tiny world and in the big picture,” Crockett said. “They are going to inherit a planet that needs care.”

Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at ysabellekempe@gmail.com.