By Simone Tenorio
This winter, Sustainability Club students with Sierra Watershed Educational Partnerships conducted lunch waste audits at Kings Beach, Tahoe Lake, Truckee, and Glenshire elementary schools, as well as North Tahoe School and Sierra Expeditionary Learning School, weighing the amounts of organic and inorganic waste resulting from school and home-packed lunches during mealtimes. They wanted to know just how much food waste was being produced.
The audits were part of a SWEP initiative to work with the Truckee Tahoe Unified School District to become compliant with California’s new waste diversion and carbon reduction requirements by diverting organic waste from landfills and reducing carbon emissions in TTUSD schools.
This program is vital not only for the TTUSD’s efforts to comply with state and county regulations, but also for empowering students to take what they have learned and teach their families new practices to employ in their homes.
Proof of the students’ success is in the data: Thanks to the efforts of our carbon emission reduction program and the support of our partners, more than 75 pounds of food waste per day — equaling more than 13,000 pounds of organic waste annually — are now being diverted from local landfills and being composted.
“Listening and learning about the lunch waste audit day results from Kings Beach, Truckee [and] Glenshire elementary schools, and Sierra Expeditionary Learning School students was outstanding,” TTUSD District Director of Food and Nutrition Kat Soltanmorad said after evaluating their data. “Each group had great feedback to share [about] how to reduce lunch waste both from home and school from their one-day audits of the cafeteria trash and compost. Working together, we are hoping to survey students on what their school menu hits and misses are. Our Green Teams are invaluable, helping us reduce waste by increasing awareness.”
How does one implement a waste diversion program of such magnitude smoothly? We knew that students would be the key. That’s where Sustainability Club kids come in. For the past 15 years, SWEP’s Sustainability Clubs have been staples of environmental advocacy and education in our schools. Participating students provide support in educating other children, teachers, and parents about important environmental issues.
Each of the students has specific reasons for being involved in the program. Shayla Bailey of Kings Beach Elementary School, for example, likes working for results. “I am on the Green Team because I love helping the environment,” she said. “I love working on projects that are for a good cause, and I love making a difference in my community.”
Meanwhile, Bryce Baker of Glenshire Elementary School relishes learning by doing.
“I love project-based learning,” he said. “I also enjoy reusing waste to create projects including ‘box houses.’ I look forward to learning more about the Earth and ways to make it a better and more sustainable place to live.”
And then there are concepts of management. “I joined the Sustainability Club because I care about the environment and I want to learn how to be a more effective leader,” said Leah Cohen of Sierra Expeditionary Learning School.
And Lyla Griswold of Truckee Elementary School believes cleaning up trash makes a difference. “I want to help the Earth and stop littering so people can enjoy nature without having to pick up trash or just leave it there,” she said. “It is important that people take care of our planet, so it is as beautiful as when humans first came to Earth.”
Partners drive success
Since October 2022, I’ve been the director of business operations and communications with SWEP, helping to connect regional partners and resources with classrooms to facilitate science projects that benefit the local environment and raise awareness. As promoters of environmental stewardship, we at SWEP understand our part in helping to empower students, teachers, and administrators to participate in reducing and diverting waste. I’ve been lucky to see this in action.
With the inception of the carbon reduction program in 2021, SWEP has successfully implemented food waste separation programs in the cafeterias at most local elementary schools, and the nonprofit has received vital support from partners along the way. Both Tahoe Truckee Airport Community Partner and Northstar California in partnership with Vail Resorts EpicPromise have pledged to reduce their own carbon footprints.
SWEP is also collaborating in this effort with the Town of Truckee and the TTUSD administration, food services, and custodial staff. Together we have planned, organized, and prepared materials. We’ve created organic waste-sorting tables, posters, labels, and smart sorting recycling bins, joining the student effort to implement food waste separation properly and successfully.
Leading into this program, SWEP also conducted a methane reduction experiment with every student in every K-5 classroom, empowering them to make a positive impact while learning the value of food separation and composting first-hand.
SWEP Sustainability Club students continue monitoring to make sure every student and staff member understands the process and the importance behind the need to separate food waste. They record weekly video announcements called Tip of the Week and create bulletin boards in schools for everyone to see. SWEP students also host Trashion Show assemblies at schools and at local events like the annual Earth Day Festival at Palisades Tahoe to communicate their environmentally centered messaging.
Food waste equals methane
Students hope to give future presentations to the Town of Truckee Council, the board of directors of the Truckee Tahoe Airport District, and the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. They’ll explain that research shows that 33% of all human-caused methane emissions come from our food system, and methane is 30 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Thus, diverting organic waste from our landfills is beneficial not only for overall waste reduction in our region, but also for reducing the impacts of carbon emissions on climate change. SWEP students are doing just that.
In 2016 California passed two ordinances reduce organic waste and methane emissions by 2025 — Assembly Bill (AB 827) and Senate Bill (SB 1383) — requiring the separation and proper disposal of organic waste, as well as the reduction of organic waste methane emissions, respectively. However, extra funding to implement new waste diversion systems was not made available, posing a challenge for local schools and businesses to adhere to the requirements of AB 827 and SB 1383.
Thankfully, environmentally conscious organizations have stepped in to help SWEP, including the Truckee Tahoe Airport Community Partner, Northstar California and Vail Resorts EpicPromise, TTUSD, the Town of Truckee, the Truckee Donner PUD, Placer County, and The Patchwork Collective.
We at SWEP thank them for their continued support in implementing methane reduction and other environmental stewardship programs in local schools. As our name suggests, we could not do the work that we do without our partnerships, which are vital to the continued success of our programs.
With the help of our committed student club members, Sustainability Clubs allow SWEP to share messaging and train students regarding the importance of composting and recycling, empowering them to do their part in helping their schools and, ideally, their homes, and in turn benefitting the region and the planet.
~ Simone Tenorio is originally from Munich, Germany. No matter where her travels took her, she always missed the beautiful Bavarian forests and lakes she grew up with. Simone fell in love with the pristine beauty of the Tahoe Basin and finally found her forever home in Truckee. When she’s is not wrangling her two children and sweet pup, Enzo, you can find her cooking new recipes, exploring trails, or shredding the slopes.
- SWEP’s Sustainability Clubs engage a large number of students in both local and private schools.
- Students in the Sustainability Clubs learn how the activity they’re performing enhances the environment’s health.
- By helping local schools — as well as their own families — reduce food waste, the students of SWEP’s Sustainability Clubs are aiding to save costs.