EAST VILLAGE — Local schoolchildren are helping the environment — by keeping an eye on their trash.
Students from P.S. 34 on East 12th Street have spent the school year serving as “Cafeteria Rangers,” overseeing lunchroom recycling and waste disposal as part of a pilot program that's helped slash the amount of garbage schools send to landfills.
"They own the program, they take on these leadership roles...and the whole goal is rather than somebody telling students what to do, the students themselves actually own the recycling program," said Debby Lee Cohen, the executive director and founder of Cafeteria Culture which developed the program.
At the beginning of the school year, Cafeteria Culture taught students garbage and recycling basics, focusing not only on how to separate trash properly, but also the ways sending refuse to landfills or incinerators could affect local communities and the environment.
“Before we even teach them ‘how,’ we teach them why,” Cohen said. “If you don’t tell the ‘why’ [the lesson is] not long lasting.”
The curriculum also encourages kids to do community outreach and create art projects promoting waste reduction initiatives, she said.
The “Cafeteria Ranger's” peers already knew the drill — toss food scraps in the composting bin, place recyclables and trash in their respective receptacles and stack the compostable trays.
All the monitors needed to do was to make sure everything was being disposed of properly, said fifth graders Reana Akthar, Justin Anglada, Ariana Fermin and Melany Fernandez, who were Wednesday’s cafeteria rangers.
But sometimes the work could also be a little “gross,” they said, especially when they needed to reach into a pile to place an item in the correct bin.
But that didn’t deter them from helping out.
“It’s helpful for the environment and that motivates us to do disgusting things,” Akthar said.
So far, the program seems to be successful, Cohen said. Students and parents have responded positively and the school now only puts out about one curbside garbage bag a day, down from about 10.
Principal Rosemarie Gonzlaez also said the program has empowered and excited her students.
"It's been wonderful," she said.
Cohen said Cafeteria Culture is developing a multimedia toolkit to help other schools implement a similar program.