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Each day, hundreds of city students walk the lunch line. The cycle goes on five days a week — they eat, drink, then dispose of garbage. And that waste ends up in what appears to be an endless sea of garbage bags.
Where does this multitude of trash end up? What does that mean for the environment? Those are just two of the questions Shelton Intermediate School teachers Rob Swercewski and Eric Wolf recently posed to their students — and the answers produced some green conscious ideas.
And the Board of Education, at its Jan. 23 regular meeting, received an education on the results of this project. Three separate teams made PowerPoint presentations to the board members, and each team made requests that, after careful research, they feel would make the school more environmentally conscious and perhaps even save money in the long run.
“To see their work in action, to see the practical experience that is so meaningful to students, is incredible,” said SIS Principal Kenneth D. Saranich. “To engage learning like this is exactly what innovative education is about. I’m very proud of the teachers and very proud of the students and the work they have done.”
Wolf’s LifeLab teamed with Swercewski’s Inventors Lab for the project, which forced the students to run through the design thinking process with a specific experience, in this case what to do with the piles of trash remaining from a school day’s lunch.
One day recently, the two teachers brought together the students in their classes outside behind the cafeteria near the dumpsters. There the students were presented with rubber gloves, with bags of garbage from the previous day’s lunch periods sitting in front of them. The goal — sort the garbage into six different categories: plastic, whole food, Styrofoam trays, milk cartons, compostable and trash.
After braving the cold conditions and sorting the garbage, the class was broken into teams, and each team was then told to pick a pile.
The first team — Dylan Bauer, Sean Roden and Jack Kieley — researched how to best handle the enormous amount of Styrofoam lunch trays trashed each day. The students calculated that some 500 trays a day — about 90,000 trays over one school year — are thrown in the trash.
The students learned that one Styrofoam cup takes 500 years to decompose, and while Styrofoam is recyclable, most facilities will not take it. That led these three to the StyroGenie, which takes Styrofoam lunch trays and turns into reusable products. StyroGenie reverse engineers the Styrofoam process, using kitchen oven temperature to melt the Styrofoam into usable bricks that can be repurposed or recycled.
A StyroGenie costs $12,000, and although the students stated that the price may seem high, the school will get an ROI on waste removal and the satisfaction of saving the environment. The polystyrene created by recycling the Styrofoam in the StyroGenie is a glassy material that can be used for milling at the high school, material for making bricks, used to make picture frames, can be shaped into protective covers or even used to make plates.
Wolf said this trio’s idea has even attracted the attention of Whitsons Culinary Group, which handles the lunches for the Shelton public schools. The students were scheduled to meet with Whitsons representatives Friday.
Ava Kavasansky, Aiden Welch and Paul Zint focused on the plastics thrown in the trash. The trio found that 130 plastic water bottles are trashed in one day, with 23,400 water bottles tossed out during SIS school year. The students also found that the STEMovation lab’s 3D printer also develops a large amount of plastic waste.
The answer, they said, is the PhotoCycler+, which, at a cost of $1,700, can take the recycled plastic and grind it up into tiny pieces. Then it takes the pieces and melts them into plastic filament for the 3D printer, which will help save money on filament purchases, which run an average of $50 per roll. The extra filament can be sold to make extra money for printer paper, school supplies and other school needs, the students said. To aid in the purchase, the student suggested selling 3D printer creations — made with TinkerCAD.
The third team, Jason Hutchinson, Niko Gergely, "Noah Jackson and Patrick Carroll, turned their focus to the amount of extra food thrown out each day. This prompted the trio to create a survey to be given to students during morning homeroom for that day’s lunch to help identify what students would prefer to eat.
So this team came up with a project to make sure the students know what they want to get so the lunch ladies know how much food to make, so there would not be any wasted food. The team sought guidance on creating the survey from the lunch team.
They also recommended that this survey should be used at the other schools in the district. And the reason, they said, is because it is a simple, no-cost solution to stop wasting food since wasted food means wasted money. The best part, they continued, is that this is free.
“What we presented [the students] has a direct impact on them,” said Wolf. “From there, the gambit of ideas was awesome, and these three groups rose to the top. The project was a big success for sure.”