On March 14, 2023 Lincoln Park High School (LPHS) in Chicago Public Schools, a school of 2,060 students, officially launched its zero waste program in the lunchroom and kitchen. According to Gary Cuneen, Seven Generations Ahead’s (SGA) Founder and Executive Director, “This launch is part of SGA’s work to support CPS in establishing food scrap diversion pilots toward the long-term goal of meeting waste diversion goals and expanding composting to more schools across the district.” 

Launch day at LPHS was truly a community effort, engaging school staff, teachers, and students. SGA’s Zero Waste Schools (ZWS) Program Manager, Becky Brodsky, and ZWS Program Associate, Rebecca Koshi were also onsite to assist and assess the impact. The high school is now sorting out liquids and recycling and commercially composting all food scraps, paper napkins, and lunch trays, as well as placing unopened packaged items and whole fruits from the school lunch on a share table for other students to take. LPHS typically filled twenty bags of landfill garbage per day during their five lunch periods. On launch day, they took that number down to just two!

“The staff was really supportive and very interested in helping,” noted Brodsky. She highlighted two custodial staff who were particularly invested in figuring out a good system for the lunchroom, as well as security staff who helped make announcements and give reminders as the students sorted their items after eating. 

The school’s dining manager also attended launch day and was very receptive to the program, said Brodsky. As they assessed the launch, they were able to discuss additional ways to increase the use of compostable items and decrease plastic waste in the lunchroom. 

Brodsky emphasized the critical involvement of teachers in the success of the launch, both in finding student volunteers from the Zero Waste Club and their classes to help with the program and in championing zero waste over the past couple years. The composting and recycling program was originally supposed to launch in the spring of 2022, but was unfortunately delayed. However, due to the persistent efforts of a few teachers, spearheaded by biology teacher Luke Mueller, they were able to launch the program this school year. 

Launch day sorting efforts resulted in 116 pounds of food scraps diverted and 21 pounds of recycling. The share table had 63 items on it, which added up to 19 pounds of rescued food. Overall, 76% of the lunchroom waste was diverted from the landfill. 

The success of launch day is just the beginning at LPHS. Brodsky is excited to continue conversations with the school about additional ways to reduce waste, for example, by having signage that clearly explains the Offer versus Serve concept to make sure that students understand which school lunch food items they do and don’t have to take. She also noted that a big advantage of launching a zero waste program in a high school is that students have the opportunity to speak up and engage with the administration about what sustainable initiatives they’d like to see. There’s tremendous potential for advocacy both at the school and district level. 

A big thank you to all LPHS staff and students, Aramark Food Services, and Lakeshore Recycling Systems for their partnership on this project. We look forward to seeing what’s next on Lincoln Park High School’s zero waste journey!