The law of conservation of mass states that matter is neither created nor destroyed. This principle applies to all matter, including waste sent to landfills. Though waste cannot be destroyed, Sophomores at Solorio Academy High School in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood have taken it upon themselves to find a way to put it to better use. They study the law of conservation of mass and chemical processes that occur in waste landfills and incinerators. The students also expand their critical thinking skills by addressing the issue of waste production.

Greta Kringle, chemistry teacher and adviser for Solorio’s zero waste program, said that when she’s taught this chemistry unti in the past students would conclude that neither landfills or incinerators were sustainable solutions. The conservation of mass topic lacked an optimistic finale; it caused students to become frustrated on the human impact on the Earth but gave them little direction for how they could improve the waste issue. “It felt like a missed opportunity for students to come up with solutions for us to implement at Solorio,” said Kringle.

This year was different. This year Solorio became one of the 10 schools to join the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Commercial Composting Pilot Program. The Zero Waste Program was initiated in 2014-15 through the partnership of Seven Generations Ahead (SGA), CPS and Lakeshore Recycling Systems. Five Chicago public schools were chosen as first-year pilot schools and the pilot expanded in 2015-16, bringing the total to 10 schools.

Solorio students volunteer in disposing compostable plates for the Launch Day Waste Assessment provided by Seven Generations Ahead

The Zero Waste Program’s mission is to educate students and school communities about sustainability and the environment along with operational changes in the school’s cafeteria and kitchen. Each participating pilot school holds a school wide assembly, Zero Waste Ambassador Workshop and receive all of the necessary equipment.

Solorio High School contacted SGA after hearing about the Zero Waste Program at one of the first-year pilot schools, and SGA was happy to help its 1,000 plus students get up and running.

This past school year, sophomores at Solorio took a six-week unit on conservation of mass that included applying knowledge of conservation of atoms and stoichiometry to evaluate the human impact on various waste disposal methods. The chemistry class also involved the option of becoming a Zero Waste Ambassador (ZWA) or being a student volunteer. As a ZWA, students oversee peers who had volunteered with assisting and sorting waste during breakfast and lunch periods

Over the course of the year, ZWAs gained knowledge beyond the classroom. “Just as you might in a job, they had to step up to teach and lead… in the end, I believe the students learned important lessons about managing others and setting an example for others,” Kringle said. The program also allows for student at all levels to volunteer and gain more service learning hours during school hours.

By the end of the school year, Solorio’s achieved outstanding results. Once the ZWP was implemented, the cafeteria and kitchen reduced their landfill input by 68 percent and are composting 40 percent of their waste. For next year, Kringle and other Solorio administrators hope to increase waste awareness throughout the school with an all-school kick-off assembly, informational sheets for staff and volunteers and using a refrigerator or cooler for milk given through the food share, where students can give their uneaten food or milk to other students who may want the additional lunch food item. Kringle hopes that as the Zero Waste Program expands throughout the school, Solorio will form a culture based on sustainability and healthy communities.

—Isabella Masini
SGA Intern

July 2016