Sustainable Missoula: Changing the culture of waste, one fifth-grader at a time

A fifth-grade student in the ZWAP! program makes the connection between plastic pollution and environmental health.

Editor’s note: Sustainable Missoula is in the midst of a series of articles to build broader understanding of the 0/50/100 sustainability framework – Zero Waste, 50 percent sustainable trips, and 100 percent clean electricity for Missoula. This article is the third in a series on Zero Waste. Read the first one here and the second one here.

The black-and-white photo hung on the wall outside the kindergarten classroom. In it, my son proudly held a handwritten sign that read “socr plar.” It’s an age-old question for kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

At Home ReSource, as a Community Sustainability Center, we’re asking the fifth-graders in ZWAP!, our Zero Waste Ambassadors Program, what kind of world they want to grow up in. And we’re asking them to draw it. Equipped with pages of outdated, donated dot-matrix copier paper and yogurt tubs filled with colored pencils, a new generation of sustainability leaders is illustrating their future world.

Despite differences across schools, life experiences, and economic and social factors, a cohesive vision is emerging: a healthy environment with lots of trees, clean rivers and oceans, happy fish, zero waste picnics, reusable shopping bags and water bottles, food scraps composting, source-separated recycling (bottles separate from cans separate from paper), and the occasional solar-powered rocketship. It’s a world with no pollution, no plastic bags and no plastic straws, described in their own words and expressed predominantly in blue and green hues. In this world, according to a simple, yet sublime black-and-white bar graph, the amount of “trash” declines as “hope” increases.

In this fifth-grader’s drawing from ZWAP!, the amount of “trash” declines as “hope” increases.

In ZWAP!, we teach a simple equation: CHOICE + ACTION = DIFFERENCE. At the conclusion of the ZWAP! experience, our hope is that students are empowered with the understanding that their choices can create the world they envision. We want them to see that how they choose to be in the world is as important as what they choose to be.

This idea is at the root of a tremendous cultural change taking place in the context of Missoula’s ZERO by FIFTY goal and elsewhere. Leadership is emerging across the community, especially from those who have the most stake in the future: the youth.

Take, for instance, the Sussex first-graders whose letter to state Sen. Sue Malek resulted in a recent discussion among Montana legislators to consider limiting distribution of plastic straws; Ian Knight, former Hellgate High School senior and S.A.V.E. Club member, current MSU undergrad, whose comments before the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees led to the complete phase-out of expanded polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) containers for food service across the entire school district; and Grace Gibson-Snyder, current Hellgate student and S.A.V.E. Club member, who is working to develop an education campaign designed to move the community toward replacing single-use disposable plastic containers and utensils at restaurants with reusable ones from home. Their choices to take action are making a difference.

The work of adult allies is equally important; some of it was highlighted here. That all three Zero Waste-aligned bills introduced this legislative session died in committee (HB 165, SB 120, SB 121) is a sign that this change won’t happen overnight. Yet everyday, there’s more and more proof that “hope” is on the rise as the coalition of change expands and becomes more diverse.

We are thrilled to report that 100 percent of Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) fifth-grade teachers have signed up their classes for ZWAP! this year, which along with several new and returning non-MCPS classes registered, makes 2019 our most impactful year yet.

Meanwhile, the Western Montana Fair announced it has adopted the ZERO by FIFTY goal, with a target to drastically reduce waste in 2019 compared to the 60 tons of materials sent to landfill during the 2018 fair. And this summer, Environment Montana will launch the Wildlife over Waste campaign to continue fighting the battle against styrofoam and plastic pollution.

The shift to a sustainable Missoula is happening thanks to the efforts of many. I hope that the Missoula in which my soccer player son grows up will support him and all young Missoulians in balancing what they want to be with considerations of what kind of world they want to live in and how they will choose to create it.

Want to get involved? Please join us next Thursday at Climate Smart Missoula’s meet-up on Zero Waste as we celebrate and learn about ZERO by FIFTY developments, unveil the new ZERO by FIFTY website, and explore emerging opportunities on Missoula’s pathway to Zero Waste (details below).

Jeremy Drake is Community Engagement Manager at Home ReSource.

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

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

March 10. Citizens Climate Lobby Training: How to Become a Climate Advocate. Missoula Public Library large meeting room. 1-4pm.

March 13. Faith & Climate Action MT monthly meeting. Emmaus House, 532 University Ave. 12 – 1 pm.

March 14. Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup: Zero Waste is this month’s topic. Imagine Nation Brewing from 5 – 7 p.m.

March 16 & 18. Community dialogues on 100% Clean Energy: A Livable Missoula for All. March 16, 9 am – 12 pm at Home ReSource & March 18, 6 – 9 pm at Missoula Public Library. Details and registration HERE.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.

Sustainable Missoula: 2019 is the year of ‘Zero Heroes’