Contributed by Larisa Pender-Healey, Grade 7 Life Science Instructor

Seventh graders have been given a challenge to redesign a single aspect of the current Upper School building to produce zero waste.

In a structure that is responsible for our emotional, physical, and spiritual health, and where students, faculty and staff spend 8-12 hours a day, it is our civic duty to make our space a priority. This week we toured the Upper School building with several Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) experts, pointing out both the wins and challenges for sustainable initiatives.

Several students were interested in decreasing the amount of waste generated in the cafeteria. Simultaneously, I have been leading students through an immersive learning experience where they take on 24-hour challenges that ask them to produce zero waste in small tasks. For example: One challenge was to refuse plastic straws for 24 hours. Another challenge was to bring a zero waste snack to school.

Some challenges have been easier than others, but refusing plastic drinking cups has by far been the hardest for students and teachers. Most students instinctively carried plastic cups from the cafeteria back to class, rather than bringing their own reusable water bottle. I decided to spice things up a bit and force them into adopting this habit.

During our tour many students mentioned that we could simply remove the plastic drinking cups, while disregarding the major issue of changing a behavior. I conspired with Mohammed to remove plastic cups from our cafeteria for an entire week. The initial reaction from students was one of frustration. Several students claimed that they didn’t know about this challenge and others were frustrated that they could not drink from the Styrofoam cups instead. There was a common theme of defiance of the uncomfortable nature of change for the first day. The following day many students proudly showed me that they brought their reusable water bottle to school. Within 24 hours they had a complete mindset shift, which was a beautiful thing to witness.

I have received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from parents, faculty, and staff. Students have gone home and asked their parents to transform their homes to produce zero waste and a few parents have reached out to me via email to let me know they want to support this initiative at home. Faculty members have thanked me for encouraging them to make better choices for our planet.

My hope is that the honeymoon phase of challenging ourselves to produce zero waste never ends. It’s a huge goal of mine to help transform Mount Vernon into a community that supports sustainability practices. This challenge that the seventh graders have sailed through is just the beginning.

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