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Sustainability Springs Forward

Packer students are undeniably busy. Over 50 clubs and various movements compete daily for the attention of the student body, making it increasingly difficult for one singular initiative to stay in focus for very long. Despite this, the sustainability team and Earth Club are able to maintain excitement around their cause—it is just that important.

On the first day of school, students were greeted in the lunchroom by colorful signs and orange-vest-donning “Compost Managers,” who directed students to the correct receptacles for their trash. In past years, students would carelessly slide the contents of their tray into the garbage can, occasionally taking the time to throw a plastic bottle into the recycling bin. (That is, if they threw their trash out at all.) This year, however, there are clear-cut guidelines as to where each item from the cafeteria is thrown out; cutlery in the recycling, organic waste in the compost, water cups in the landfill, and more. The addition of compost is the biggest change, and a huge, long-awaited step in the direction of zero waste—which consists of having “zero waste” go to a landfill.

In a recent Chapel presentation, the leaders of Earth Club outlined just how impactful this change could be. If every member of the community composts and recycles properly, we would divert 86% of our waste from a landfill, a significant amount of waste given that the number of Packer students reaches 1000. Furthermore, the cafeteria is now disposing of any organic waste from their meal preparation in the compost.

At least for the time being, Packer seems excited about the notion of composting. A general buzz surrounds the trash cans after each Break and Lunch period, and it is not uncommon to hear one student ask another: “where do I throw this out?” Earth Club and the sustainability team hope to maintain this energy throughout the year, continuing to compost and hopefully getting the student body involved in other sustainability projects.       

The only dissent surrounding this change has been from those who don’t want to take the time to sort their trash. But sorting only takes a few extra seconds, and it can have a huge environmental impact, especially considering that we are joining a group of thousands of schools around the city committed to composting, a point Director of Global Outreach, Service, and Sustainability Tene Howard was sure to highlight.

“In so many issues that our world faces, it’s kind of like, is my little thing that I’m doing going to change anything? We are individuals, but if a group of individuals are acting collectively, that has a larger impact,” said Ms. Howard. “If 500 students recycle all their milk carton and juice boxes, over the course of the year, that’s 14 trees. At Packer, we have 1,000 students. So that expands to 28 trees. In New York City, there are a million students, so that expands to 28,000 trees.”

This new initiative is about more than just composting, however.

“I think, as a student body, it is really just an opportunity to be mindful about our impact and why we are making the choices we are making. Sometimes we struggle to take that second to think about what we are doing,” mused Liv Furman (‘20), leader of Earth Club. “When you get up, did you throw out your trash? And then that next step is: where is that trash going?”

Composting is only one, albeit important, aspect of living sustainably. This notion of mindfulness can extend past throwing out trash and into the amount of food we take in the first place.

“There are three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. People usually forget the ‘reduce’ one, and it’s usually ‘recycle’ that gets the most publicity. But reducing is probably the easiest thing you can do, and the most effective,” explained Ray George (‘19), another leader of Earth Club.

All of this action and awareness is critically important because, as leading scientists worldwide agree, climate change is an imminent threat. Especially with a government promoting oil and coal companies and defunding the Environmental Protection Agency, it is crucial now more than ever that we do our part to conserve our Earth.

“I’m proud that, at Packer, we don’t vacillate about whether or not climate change is real,” said Ms. Howard. “I think as an institution we are saying that it is really important for us to make sure that the actions that we are taking no longer contribute to exacerbating this larger issue.”

This understanding comes, too, with the necessity for education, something that Packer has not yet succeeded in fully. At the moment, the science department is working toward including climate change in Packer’s curriculum in a more comprehensive way, starting from the youngest students.

In fact, the newly built Early Learning Center, currently housing Packer’s Pre-K and Kindergarten classes, is far ahead of the Upper and Middle Schools in sustainability and education. Every classroom was built with a dishwasher, meaning that each student uses reusable cutlery—something our cafeteria doesn’t have the capacity for—and the classrooms were designed by teachers with a noticeable rejection of plastic materials. And while the building doesn’t have curbside pickup of compost, one science teacher, Sharon Melady, is ensuring their maximum sustainability by engaging her students in lessons on trash sorting and climate change, and singlehandedly collecting the compost from each classroom to drop off at the main building every day.

By teaching students how to properly sort trash at the ages of three, four, and five, she believes that what is an act of mindfulness for us will quickly become second nature for them.

“At that age, they are keen to please and they are curious and they want to do what’s right and they learn so quickly. They are just like sponges. So it becomes natural,” she said. “They don’t even have to think about it. It’s like putting on your shoes, or walking.”

Despite this hope for the future, despite statistics about trees, the act of “sorting it out” may seem small when compared to the impact of huge corporations that seem to be in the pocket of powerful climate change denialists. But, as we seem to hear echoed everywhere, we are the future.

“You all and the million students in New York City may be running these corporations one day, so your mindfulness and understanding of why this is important translates to a lot, hopefully,” said Ms. Howard.

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