Featured Journal Article

Loveland City Schools ramp up recycling

by Bryan Bullock, OSBA communication coordinator

It’s no secret teenagers can be picky about what they eat. At Loveland High School, students are just as particular — if not more so — about what they do with waste from their meals. 

After students finish lunch in the cafeteria, they stack their compostable trays and file slowly by a series of waste receptacles. Each day, a group of students from Tracy Burge’s environmental science class stands by the bins and helps their peers identify which waste can be recycled, composted or — as a last resort — thrown away. A separate group of high school students will go through the bins later to make sure nothing was misplaced. It’s a dirty job — they literally dig through the trash.

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“I remember the first time we went though the trash to pick out recyclables three years ago,” Burge said. “I just dug in my hands and started picking out bottles.

 “The students were literally backing away from me in disgust,” she said with a laugh.

The next day, Burge said, students began digging through the trash for recyclables with the same zeal.

“The kids have really taken hold of this project and taken ownership of it,” said Chris Kloesz, Loveland High School principal. “They’re the ones who have pushed the school to expand recycling and they’re constantly coming up with new ways to reduce waste.”

Students have already achieved meaningful results at Loveland High School. About 1,500 students and school staff eat lunch in the cafeteria each day. In just a few years, the school has reduced the number of bags of trash it produces each day during lunch from 60 to two. For this and other accomplishments, the school has been recognized as a zero-waste facility — meaning it has cut its waste by more than 90% — and named one of the nation’s first Green Ribbon schools.

“It’s truly amazing what students are doing and it really represents a culture shift at the school,” said Kloesz. “We get calls now from schools and other groups asking how we’re doing this or what I have done as a principal to make this happen. The answer I give is that I didn’t do anything. The students did this. I love to be able to say, ‘I can’t stop them.’”

With the support of the administration and school board, the Cincinnati-area school district of 4,500 students has made strides to model environmental stewardship. Rated excellent by the Ohio Department of Education, Loveland City Schools has made efforts in all its buildings to go green and reduce energy, water and natural gas consumption, saving more than $450,000 a year. Students also are exposed to hands-on learning about the environment beginning in elementary school through an innovative, four-year garden program that aligns with state standards.

A high school’s green movement

Loveland High School has offered an environmental science class for about 10 years, and Burge began teaching the course three years ago. The elective course is open to students in all grades and, due to its popularity, Burge typically teaches three units each semester. The class emphasizes hands-on learning and students are charged with sustaining and expanding a variety of green initiatives at the school.

“I run the class like a corporation,” said Burge, who has been teaching for 20 years. “We might have a recycling group, a video-making group and a grant-writing group. Each group works together on projects.”

Her class asked the school’s waste service provider to conduct a trash audit, which found the school spent about $660 a month for two dumpsters of trash that were picked up daily. Students worked with the school’s food service director and custodial staff to find ways to reduce waste. The class solicited donations for recycling bins and implemented recycling and “stackination” in the cafeteria, a way of stacking lunch trays so they take up less physical space in the trash.

The first day, those two techniques alone cut the cafeteria’s trash volume by more than a third. After students put recycling bins in classrooms, the school saw its trash output slashed in half.

“The students had to make videos to show the school this is how, what and why we’re doing this,” Burge said. “It’s very important for people to understand the why.”

The class has been eye-opening for many students — and it’s changed the way they think.

“I was surprised to learn all the things we throw away that we could recycle or compost,” said sophomore Willie Lutz. “When I go to throw something away now, I think, ‘Can I recycle this?’ Right now, I’m trying to get my family to get on a composting program.”

He said he enjoyed learning about the environment, but he liked the soft skills the class developed, too.

“I learned a lot of life skills, like making calls to companies, writing grants and talking to adults,” Lutz said.

Students in the environmental science class operate largely self-directed, and they are tasked with contacting school leaders and businesses to coordinate green initiatives. The students have presented in front of the board of education, and they have planned and coordinated class field trips on environmental issues.

Sophomore Casey Smith said he was shocked to see on a field trip to a local landfill that about 60% of everything that gets thrown away could be recycled. “That kind of blew everyone’s minds,” he said.

Smith said he liked the hands-on nature of the environmental science class.

“Every day was hands-on,” he said. “We were out recycling, picking up trash, working on new projects and learning about the environment.”

Lutz and Smith won more than $900 in a local watershed improvement grant competition in March. Burge helped students with their grant application, which earned Lutz and Smith second place out of 50 proposals. The money will be used to purchase compostable silverware for the cafeteria; the school has already adopted compostable cafeteria trays.

Loveland High School began composting this year, which brought its waste output down even further. The school needed to reduce its daily cafeteria trash volume from 60 to six bags in order to be considered a zero-waste facility.

“We got it down to two bags,” Burge said. “The first day we implemented composting, the second bag wasn’t even full.”

She said the savings from reducing trash pickups at the school has outweighed the extra cost of having a company collect composting. Students help food service staff sort and take out waste each day, as well as put chairs on top of tables in the cafeteria.

“We’ve implemented all these programs at no additional costs,” Burge said. “The myth is that recycling is going to be more work and more cost, and it’s been neither.”

An eco-friendly school district

Loveland High School was named a Green Ribbon school last year by the U.S. Department of Education. It was one of only 78 schools in the nation to receive the honor, which highlights the best environmental practices and green curricula. 

“The Green Ribbon designation encapsulated all of the energy, effort and passion that Tracy (Burge) and the students have for what they do,” said Kloesz. “Naturally, it has brought a lot of very positive attention to our district, which continues to feed on that momentum.”

The high school has inspired, and been inspired by, other green initiatives in the district. Loveland Early Childhood Center invites parents and community members to bring in paper for recycling. Loveland Middle School collects gently used school supplies at the end of each school year, which are passed on to those in need and kept out of a landfill. The district’s elementary schools have recycled more than 30,000 juice pouches this year, earning the schools about $1,000 to fund a field trip for first-graders to learn about recycling and composting. Each Loveland City school building:

   •  recycles classroom and office paper;

   •  reduces paper consumption by using electronic communications;

   •  uses occupancy sensors for classroom lighting;

   •  uses nontoxic cleaning solutions;

   •  uses hand dryers instead of paper towels in restrooms for most buildings;

   •  serves filtered drinking water in the cafeteria instead of bottled water;

   •  recycles in the cafeteria.

The district has reduced its utility usage and costs through a series of efforts over the past few years to make its facilities more efficient. In 2009, Loveland City developed a plan to become more energy efficient and received $6 million in interest-free loans through a House Bill 264 project, which allows districts to make energy-related improvements and use the cost savings to pay for them.

Loveland City Business Manager John A. Ames said the district used the funding to replace boilers, install low-flow faucets, upgrade indoor and outdoor lighting, and modernize heating and cooling systems, among other improvements. As a result, the district has cut its natural gas usage by 48% and electricity usage by 39% over the past four years. The district has seen water usage drop by as much as half in some buildings. The environmentally friendly changes saved the district $466,000 in 2012, when compared to utility costs in 2008.

“Part of it is an awareness piece,” Ames said. “The kids won’t just leave sinks or lights on anymore, and they’ll tell people if they’re doing something wrong. It’s a culture change for everyone. We’re constantly looking at ways to be more efficient.”

Dr. Kathryn M. Lorenz, a board member with Loveland City and Great Oaks ITCD, said the board of education has made it a priority to be as environmentally friendly and financially responsible as possible.

“Our district is very proud to be academically sound and economically efficient,” she said. “The recycling efforts at Loveland High School, along with other environmental efforts, show that we have students learning in and outside the classroom, and that we have a very well-rounded public education system.”

Green education

When the weather is warm, the property surrounding Loveland Primary and Elementary schools is lush with vegetables, flowers and leafy green plants. The 24-acre shared campus has more than 100 vegetable gardens, a variety of flower gardens, an apple orchard and a three-quarter mile nature trail. The property provides hands-on learning opportunities for more than 1,600 Loveland City students in grades one through four. The gardens are maintained by an army of volunteers and operated by Granny’s Garden School, a nonprofit group that works with Loveland City.

Roberta Paolo — better known as Granny — came up with the idea for the garden school in 2001 when she was picking her grandchildren up from Loveland Elementary School. The project, which started as a simple flower garden, has blossomed into a major operation.

“When Roberta brought this to the board (of education), I don’t think any of us dreamed that Granny’s Garden School would become as well-known and long-lasting as it has, or affect as many people as it has,” said Lorenz, a 21-year school board member.

The garden school, she said, has become a source of pride for Loveland City and helped the district strengthen ties with the community. About 600 volunteers from colleges, businesses and community groups pitch in at the garden school each year. Granny’s Garden School and Loveland City have partnered with a number of groups to obtain donations for the gardens, including many items that are repurposed. The garden school, for example, collects 4,000 water bottles each year, which are used as vases for students to take flower bouquets home.

The garden school has seven outdoor learning centers and students visit the areas regularly throughout the year. A large part of the program’s success, Paolo said, is due to the fact that garden educators are available to assist teachers with outdoor instruction. Students visit the garden school 24 times a year and the program has developed lesson plans that are applicable to each grade level and what students are learning in class.

“Our lesson plans and calendar of activities make the connection between the classroom and the outdoors,” Paolo said. “Everything is connected to state standards and we’re in the process right now of realigning all the lessons so they are connected to the new (Common) Core standards.”

The lesson plans are available for free on the garden school’s website, www.grannysgardenschool.com. In addition to learning about math, science and other core academic subjects in the garden, students are learning about the environment, nutrition, gardening and plants and vegetables. Each class maintains two garden beds, and students observe and taste food as it grows; some of the vegetables and herbs from the gardens are used in the school cafeteria.

“Students are learning there is a much wider variety of fruits and vegetables out there than what you see in the supermarket, and they’re discovering new ones that they like,” Paolo said. “We’re learning they’re changing buying habits at home, too.”

The garden school also exposes students to recycling and environmental stewardship at a young age. In the last two years, the school has diverted 60 truckloads of wood chips, 40 truckloads of leaves, thousands of pots and more than 1,000 kitty litter buckets from landfills, in addition to tons of garden refuse. The gardens also soak up rainwater, reducing runoff from blacktop into streets, sewers and the Little Miami River.

“We recycle everything, and we use and reuse whatever we can right here in the garden,” Paolo said. “We’re bringing the environment home and helping students understand it in their own backyard.” n

Editor’s note: For more information about Loveland High School’s green initiatives, contact environmental science teacher Tracy Burge at burgetr@lovelandschools.org or (513) 683-1920.