Swine are divine in elementary school recycling effort

By Michelle Locke Associated Press Writer
Monday December 17, 2001

Student body at Oak Grove have reduced landfill output by almost 90 percent using worms and pigs 

GRATON – Kids do it. Pigs do it. Even worms who only like to squirm do it. What they do at Oak Grove elementary is recycle. And they do it well; students here have reduced their landfill output by nearly 90 percent. 

“We try to be a green school all the way around,” says Fred Hall, custodian, gardener and fervent recycler. 

Tucked into the tree-shaded town of Graton, about 65 miles north of San Francisco, Oak Grove doesn’t look much different than any other small country school. 

But there are subtle differences. 

In a corner of the school yard, rose-pink worms writhe in a pile of rich, black compost made of leftover paper towels, napkins, plant material and food scraps. 

Long, wooden boxes standing outside classrooms are devoted to vermiculture: take a handful of invertebrates and some wastepaper, add a weekly dose of food scraps and — voila! — the worms turn scraps to soil. 

The school lawns were ripped out long ago, replaced by drought-tolerant landscaping and vegetable gardens that supply some of the ingredients for school lunch salad bars. 

Inside every classroom, a formidable array of containers elevates the trash can from humble receptacle to planet-saving spectacle. “There’s no such thing as just a trash can,” says Hall. 

Most rooms have at least four bins, each labeled and color coded, one for mixed paper, one for compost material, one for mixed recyclables and one for nonrecyclable trash. 

Oak Grove went green about 10 years ago in an effort to save a different type of green — money spent on trash collection fees. 

Hall started by hauling school debris to the dump himself. Then, he pulled out the cardboard for recycling. Cardboard led to paper, bottles, aluminum and the current sophisticated system that recycles just about everything and even siphons off lunchroom leftovers to local pigs. 

In the first year, the school saved about $1,400. Hall hasn’t run the numbers lately but he figures they’re saving even more now: The school used to produce about 8 cubic yards of trash per week; now they’re down to 1. That’s a reduction of 88 percent, considerably more than the 50 percent reduction target set for cities and counties by state law. 

Last year, officials estimate, California cities and counties diverted 42 percent of their garbage from going to landfills. 

Oak Grove recyclers are in a class of their own. 

In the front office, a glass-fronted case holds a framed certificate and a gilded trophy, both awards for recycling efforts. One came with $10,000, which is being used to install solar panels on the school roof. 

On a recent day, Naomi Bosch, a third-grader with a winning smile, was on duty at the sorting bins, delving into trash cans supplied by various classrooms. 

A frown crossed her forehead as she pulled a piece of stapled paper out of a “nonrecyclable trash” can. 

“These people weren’t recycling right at all,” she said, her thin treble rising in indignation. 

Recycling is “great. Because it helps Mother Nature and it helps our landfills last longer,” she declared. 

“Did your mom tell you all this stuff?” asked Hall. 

“No,” the 8-year-old said firmly. “I KNOW it.” 

At lunchtime, the recycling action turned frenzied as Hall circulated the room with a plastic bucket, taking uneaten, unopened packages for donation to a food pantry of sorts. 

Amid the buzz of chattering children and the squeak of sneakers on wood — Oak Grove’s cafeteria triples as the school’s basketball court and auditorium — an array of seven trash cans staffed by student monitors stood ready to accept paper, plastic, juice boxes, cans, etc. 

At the end of the line a bin decorated with a picture of a pink, napkined pig with knife and fork at the ready marked the slop bucket that goes to a neighborhood sty. 

Scanning the scraps was 10-year-old Lindsey Fullerton, who slapped her gloved hands together briskly as she surveyed the gruesome mix of leftover tostadas and juice. 

“It feels good,” she said gleefully before plunging her arms into the mess to retrieve stray juice boxes, which were promptly squeezed flat and tossed into the correct container. 

Swine are divine recycling partners, according to Hall, because they’re happy with things like half-eaten sandwiches that don’t go down well with worms. 

The community likes the idea, too. Multiple offers of replacement pigs poured in after the school recently lost its longtime porcine partners when a local farmer retired. A new pigsty is now hogging the lunchroom leftover market. 

Hall estimates the school recycles about 2 cubic yards of paper a week — a stack about 3 feet wide, 3 feet high and 6 feet long. They save about the same amount of cardboard and about half a cubic yard of milk cartons and boxes. 

The result, he figures, is about 32 trees a week. 

“YOU ARE TERRIFIC,” he wrote in a recent letter to teachers and students. 

Hall has noticed that visitors are often struck by the bright outlook of Oak Grove students. 

“We’ve talked a lot about how special everything is and how special the kids are. I think that the whole focus on taking care of things and taking care of the Earth and seeing that they have some importance in that process has an effect,” he said. “These kids seem to be happy.”