FIFE LAKE — What started as a first-grade social studies project on recycling efforts at Fife Lake Elementary has led to a reduction in lunchroom waste at the school.

The school this year eliminated Styrofoam trays and plastic utensils, instead transitioning back to reusable trays and adding real silverware. The school also added a foodshare bin.

It began with the 2016-17 first-grade classes of teachers Melissa Tengdin and Nicole Mullin, when students studied recycling efforts at the school.

The project was part of their “citizenship in action” unit — part of the social studies course requirements set forth by the Michigan Department of Education. The department requires a unit on public discourse, decision-making and citizen involvement for all first-graders.

“What the kids are doing is developing an understanding of public issues and the importance of taking action in a democratic society,” Tengdin said.

Pairs of students went around to the different classrooms to speak with teachers about their recycling efforts, she said. Students then compiled the data into bar graphs to compare the numbers, Tengdin said.

“They took that data and we discussed the importance of recycling and what we could do in our school … to make a change,” she said.

Fife Lake Elementary doesn’t have a recycling service, so teachers and other staff are the ones that take any recyclables to the community recycling center, Tengdin said.

The children ended up writing letters to Principal Josh Rothwell — also the superintendent of Forest Area Community Schools — conveying their opinions on recycling efforts in the elementary school.

It was exciting to see the kids taking what they learned in class and moving toward action with it, Rothwell said.

“You’re talking mostly 6-year-old students that are bringing it to my attention,” he said. “It put a lot of pressure on me to make something happen. But it was definitely a positive situation. I give them a lot of credit.”

About three weeks later, Rothwell made an announcement calling all first-graders to the cafeteria to meet with him, Tengdin recalled. There, he told them how proud he was and gave them enough blue recycling bins for each classroom and office.

Tengdin and Mullin took their students to the various classrooms, where some kids shared their thoughts, Tengdin said. The teachers agreed they would be responsible for recycling, she added.

The staff picked up the baton from there, continuing efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle as a way to “put our money where our mouth is,” Rothwell said.

Last year, administration worked with the school’s lunchroom provider to eliminate plastic containers used to hold some prepackaged lunch items, he said.

“This year, we kind of jumped in with both feet,” Rothwell said.

There isn’t necessarily going to be cost-savings with this year’s switch to reusable trays and silverware but the school expects to break even, he said. There’s less waste, but more labor involved — kitchen staff has to be paid to wash all the dishes, after all, Rothwell said.

Still, the fact that it was students who led the change is exciting — both to adults and the kids themselves, Rothwell and Tengdin said.

“The kids have been really excited about it, especially the kids who were inspired to create change,” Tengdin said. “Their voices are being heard. They talk about how we’re saving the turtles and keeping the stuff out of landfills.”

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