Seven Generations Ahead (SGA) believes that climate and sustainability solutions are most effective when they’re both equitable and scalable. That is why SGA, in partnership with the mayors of Broadview, Oak Park, and River Forest, as well as the Urban Efficiency Group, is co-leading the Cross-Community Climate Collaborative (C4). This award-winning initiative brings together 14 communities in west suburban Cook County to share sustainability best practices and work together on equitable, large-scale climate projects. 

SGA’s Zero Waste Schools (ZWS) program is excited to have recently launched its first school in a C4 community. Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Bellwood School District 88 is leading the way in zero waste lunchroom programs in the C4 communities, and it’s just the beginning of an effort to scale this program to reduce food and plastic waste at schools throughout west suburban Cook County. C4 was awarded a USDA grant to support the communities of Broadview, Bellwood and Maywood in efforts to establish curbside residential food scrap collection programs, community education on recycling and composting and the implementation of SGA’s Zero Waste Schools program in 12 schools.

“We take pride in being the first in Proviso Township for an elementary school district to launch the Zero Waste Schools program,” says Sondra McClendon, Assistant Director, Operations & Planning, Bellwood School District 88. 

Thurgood Marshall began classroom recycling with guidance from the ZWS team back in January, so students were already prepared for that transition in the cafeteria. According to Becky Brodsky, ZWS Program Manager, this was truly a school-wide effort, from the leadership of Dr. Jeremy Burnham, school principal, to the custodial staff who were very engaged and enthusiastic, to the numerous student volunteers who were excited to help their peers in the cafeteria. The older students particularly relished the opportunity to take on a leadership role by helping younger students sort their waste and make sure it went in the correct bins.

The ZWS launch brought recycling and a share table into the cafeteria, but Thurgood Marshall is not ending there. They plan to implement lunchroom and kitchen composting as soon as the district identifies a food scrap hauler. (The district also plans to roll out classroom recycling and composting district-wide next school year.) Thurgood Marshall diverted 50% of waste from the landfill bin on launch day, but with the addition of composting food scraps, it could be as high as 90%. And 38 pounds of the amount diverted was edible food collected on the share table, highlighting the need to consider ways to redistribute the surplus food within the school or the broader community.

As the first school in Proviso Township and the broader C4 communities to adopt zero waste processes for the lunchroom, Thurgood Marshall will set an example and create a pathway for other neighboring communities to do the same. ZWS is collecting data about the program at Thurgood Marshall for a case study that will communicate the best and most effective practices that schools can adopt to reduce waste. 

In addition to the work at Thurgood Marshall, the Zero Waste Schools team and other SGA staff are working on district-wide waste reduction strategies. For example, SGA helped District 88 right-size its waste hauling service levels at all schools, which resulted in close to a 50% savings on their monthly waste hauling bill. All schools in the district now have recycling containers and, either fewer or smaller, landfill dumpsters and a less frequent pickup schedule, which results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The ZWS team also helped develop standard operating procedures for share tables and Offer vs. Serve training for all food service staff in the district.

The regularly held C4 meetings for K-12 schools bring together education leaders from across the communities. As Seven Generations Ahead continues to help more C4 school districts reduce food and plastic waste, the Zero Waste Schools team will provide hands-on, in-person support, as well as access to their online resources.

Building more sustainable schools is not only an achievable goal, it’s an imperative. Through SGA, Zero Waste Schools, and the C4 initiative, we’re demonstrating that school sustainability is cost effective and scalable. Thank you to Thurgood Marshall Elementary School for leading the way!