On Wednesday, April 13, nearly 400 students at Russell Elementary sorted their lunchtime leftovers for the first time. As the most recent MCPS school to start down the pathway to ZERO by FIFTY, it didn’t take long for them to hit their stride. By sorting the items on their lunch trays into five categories - Liquids, Reuse, Recycle, Landfill, and Compost - they reduced trash 90% by volume and more than 95% by weight on the first day.

All together we estimated they kept over 50 pounds of edible food, compostable food scraps and paper, and recyclables out of the waste stream.

Most school cafeterias are epicenters for waste generation. In the days before Russell’s Zero Waste cafeteria program, custodian Dan would roll three 32-gallon cans out to the dumpster after lunch. All of them were full to the brim with materials destined to be buried in the Missoula Landfill. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Missoula Landfill, step outside anywhere in Missoula and look North.

The dusty brown splotch on the otherwise pristine open lands of the North Hills is the destination for those materials and everything else that you and I throw “away” in Missoula, the Bitterroot, parts of the Flathead, and even parts of Idaho.

But were those cans filled with trash? No. Besides recyclable materials like empty milk and juice cartons and polypropylene juice and fruit cups, they were filled with unopened cartons of milk and juice, unbitten apples, and unpeeled oranges as well as a lot of food scraps and other compostables. How do we know? Because the results of two waste audits at Jeannette Rankin Elementary in 2019 revealed that 20% (by weight) of what kids were throwing away was unopened, uneaten food that could be captured for “reuse.”

Another 54% (by weight) was food scraps and soiled paper that could be diverted to “compost.”

Why does this matter? In terms of climate change, it matters a lot. Project Drawdown considers reducing wasted food the one of the top climate solutions because food production generates greenhouse gasses at every stage. Released earlier this month, The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report finally sounded the alarm about the short-term impacts of methane. The summary states “Deep [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions by 2030 and 2040, particularly reductions of methane emissions, lower peak warming, reduce the likelihood of overshooting warming limits and lead to less reliance on net negative CO2 emissions that reverse warming in the latter half of the century.” 

Food scraps and other compostables when buried in landfills generate methane, a greenhouse gas 81 times as potent as CO2 in the short term. Landfills are the third largest human-caused source of methane emissions after oil & gas production and the livestock industry. What can we do to reduce methane emissions in Missoula? Reduce your reliance on fossil fuels, eat less meat, and stop sending food scraps to landfills.

Did the Russell Bears know how important what they were doing was to the climate? Some did – and more are learning about it every year thanks to the ZWAP! program from Home ReSource. Did they all feel really good about what they were doing anyway? Absolutely. 

Elementary school cafeterias are noisy, joyous places. They are often a transitional space between the classroom and the playground and they crackle with excitement. Add a Zero Waste sorting station and supportive, positive Zero Waste Cafeteria Coaches and the atmosphere takes on a whole new energy. It’s the energy of kids being challenged to do something difficult and succeeding, of kids learning something new and mastering it, of kids making mistakes and realizing it's OK, that we just try to do a little better next time. And it’s the energy of intrinsically knowing that reducing waste just feels right. 

As 4th grader Asher said, “I can’t believe we haven’t been doing this all along! It just makes so much sense!”

Want to be a part of the (climate) action? Sign up to be a volunteer Zero Waste Cafeteria Coach.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – most weeks by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. For more, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter via their homepage here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

April 28. 6:30pm – The Right to a Clean and Healthful Environment: a panel discussion with Held v. Montana youth plaintiffs, the first youth climate case to go to trial in the US. Hosted by Montana Interfaith Power and Light and Families for a Livable Climate. Via Zoom – register here.

May is Bike Month – Missoula’s Bike Month Calendar here

May 1-14. – Missoula in Motion’s annual Commuter Challenge – register your workplace team and compete by logging sustainable commute trips to win team and individual prizes. 

May 1-7.   International Wildlife Film Festival  virtual version 

May 2. – 1-3 pm on UM Oval.Celebrate Local Food Security at UM.  Workshops on food sovereignty projects at UM,  free gardening supplies & fresh food resources! 

May 7.  Farmers Markets are back! Missoula Farmers Market celebrates its 50th birthday ! Clark Fork Market info here…. see also Guide to MT Farmers Markets here.  (which will be updated in July).

May 14.   Fixit Clinic — don’t toss it, fix it!.  11 am to 3pm at Home Resource (1515 Wyoming, Missoula). Info/Register here. Free. More clinics on 7/9, 9/10, 11/12.

Don’t forget – Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.