Bret Harte Elementary School Launches Eco Kids Council

Some of the students from the Bret Harte Eco Kids Council. Photo by Ashley Erikson

Bret Harte Elementary School is saving the planet, one banana peel at a time. Principal Martha Walter has been working with the school’s PTA, Fundraising Committee, and city departments to build a more sustainable campus including kickstarting their Kids Eco Council where students help sort food waste and divert it from the landfill.

In 2019 the school’s PTA launched a gardening program as part of their STEAM rotations. Each grade level spends four weeks in the fall semester learning different aspects of gardening and sustainability.  TK and Kinder learn garden basics, first grade learns about garden creatures, second grade studies edible gardening, third grade studies native gardening, fourth grade covers composting, and fifth grade dives into waste reduction.

Kreigh Hampel, who recently retired as the City of Burbank’s Recycling Coordinator and worked in the department for 17 years, has helped lead the fourth grade composting classes. He teaches the students about the art and science behind composting including how to balance carbon, nitrogen, moisture and air while getting soil microorganisms to thrive.

Kreigh Hampel teaching fourth grade composting.

Hampel also worked with the school to create a food sorting table, customized by himself and Ryan Hinchliffe.  The repurposed stainless steel table has holes where the kids sort out their school lunches by liquids, food waste, composting, recyclables, and trash. The only things that now make it to the landfill is what is put in the trash bins. 

The table was put into action by Walter and the school’s parent groups in response to the new state law, Senate Bill 1383. This bill requires businesses and multi-family properties with five or more units to separate organic waste, such as food scraps and plant trimmings, from the garbage.  Schools have not yet been required to follow the bill, but Walter is getting a head start for when it does.

The food sorting table at Bret Harte elementary school. Photo by Ashley Erikson.

Walter is also currently in the Waste Warrior program that is put on by the city and teaches residents about zero waste concepts over the course of three months. “The Waste Warriors classes provided great information not only about how waste in our community is handled, but also the history of plastics, myths of recycling, familiarity with CA state laws about waste processing, what happens in the electronics recycling process, and so many other aspects of waste reduction,” said Walter.

Since the food sorting was new to the school, the PTA came up with the idea of creating a student-led program that helped to train kids on how to sort their food, compost the scraps and be sustainability leaders among their peers.  The Eco Kids Council was born in March of this year and is open to any 3rd to 5th graders interested in making a difference on their campus.

Students weighing the buckets of material being diverted from the landfill. Photo by Ashley Erikson.

“I’ve long been troubled by the amount of waste that is created at schools, both the food waste and other trash,” said Walter. “With SB 1383 and the requirement to separate food waste from other trash, this was the perfect opportunity to help students see how much is wasted each day.” The fifth grade Eco Kids weigh all the buckets on a scale and tally the number of pounds of liquids, recyclables, compost and food scraps that is being diverted from the landfill. They mark the pounds on a white board that is hung in the school’s hall for all the students to see and for every 100 lbs they color in a portion of a giant apple that is hung in the school cafeteria.

“The waste separation has made waste visible and measurable to the students and staff, and has made us all more reflective of how to create more sustainable practices at school and at home,” added Walter. Since starting to weigh their lunch scraps on April 4th they have diverted a total of 3,872 pounds from the landfill.

Hampel has established 22 working compost bins on the campus’ lawn made from repurposed food shipping barrels to hold in moisture and keep animals out. The students take the compost food scraps from lunch after weighing it and toss them into the barrels each day. “Bret Harte students are exploring and engaging natural systems: the highest form of elegant engineering.  It simply doesn’t get any better than that,” said Hampel.

Students carting compost scraps to the bins after lunch. Photo by Ashley Erikson.

Fifth grade student, Giada Valvo, was so excited that her school started the program and jumped on the opportunity to be apart of the first year of Eco Kids. “I hate seeing animals being hurt by our trash and our environment suffering,” said Valvo. “It is important to food sort so that we don’t have plastics and other trash in our compost. We use our school compost to feed our plants in the garden.  If we didn’t then all of our food waste would go into the dump mixed with all of our other trash.” Another fifth grade student, Donovan Powell, is also apart of the Eco Kids Council so that he could help his school. “I noticed a lot of food gets wasted,” said Powell. “My favorite part has been loading the compost. It’s fun to see how it changes.”

Last month Walter brought in Amy Hammes from the Burbank Recycling Center and Curtis Jordan from the Burbank landfill to discuss waste disposal practices with the students in the Eco Kids Council. “It was eye-opening for students to see where their trash goes and what happens to it,” said Walter. 

The Eco Kids are not the only progress the school has made to being more sustainable. On May 10th, the Leadership Burbank class of 2023 came to Bret Harte to do a ribbon cutting for a water bottle fill station that they donated.  Leadership Burbank funded water bottle fill stations for every elementary school in BUSD and the school district installed them.  This is Bret Harte’s second water bottle fill station on the campus, the first being supplied by the district.

Leadership Burbank Class of 2023 ribbon cutting. Photo by Ashley Erikson.

Walter has many other goals for creating a sustainable and eco-conscious campus and hopes to continue to work further with parent groups for the years to come. One of her main goals is to reduce waste at school wide events. “My other goal is to extend ideas about waste reduction to families who send lunch to school, ie, reusable containers rather than the daily use and disposal of plastic bags,”said Walter. “I know life and mornings are hectic for families, but would like families to know about other ways to package lunches and food for school.”

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