Sustainable Missoula: Fifth-graders know a clean Earth equals a happy Earth

Artwork of a Rattlesnake Elementary fifth-grade student inspired by the prompt, “What would Zero Waste look like to you?”

Kids these days. Chronic busybodies, social media aficionados, and impatient political activists. Add to that Zero Waste Ambassadors, and our Missoula community has a new generation of inspired changemakers on our hands. Are we ready to change with the times?

This spring, fifth-grade students have been creating blueprints for community change as part of the Zero Waste Ambassadors Program (ZWAP! – it’s the sound of knocking out waste in Missoula) offered by Home ReSource.

When asked, “Do you think we could live in a world that creates ZERO waste?” students are quick to answer with optimism, paired with critical thought of steps our community needs to take to achieve its Zero Waste goal.

Students’ agenda items include the following outcomes: “Find another purpose for all trash,” “for every tree cut down, 10 should be planted,” “no garbage mountains,” and finally, landfills that are “closed due to no waste.”

These goals become particularly relevant when considering the modern proliferation of waste in U.S. public schools. A newly published school waste characterization study of New York City’s 1,800 public schools provides the most comprehensive data to date. In sum, 86 percent of school waste could be diverted from the trash to compost or recycling, yet capture rates remain stubbornly low and contamination conspicuously high.

Food especially remains a finicky issue for K-12 schools. Compostable materials comprise the largest piece of the school waste pie, at 51 percent.

TheNew York Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that the average schoolchild in the U.S. generates 67 pounds of trash from school lunches each year. The USDA estimates that annually, $600 million is lost in food waste from the National School Lunch Program. Kind of puts a pit in your stomach, doesn’t it?

Youth put it best: “Save the world, don’t waste it.” The Missoula community’s passions for sustainability, resource conservation, and a strong local economy began coalescing around a Zero Waste goal several years ago.

Just as Home ReSource educators were gearing up to take fifth-grade students on the ZWAP! educational adventure in the program’s first full year, City Council members passed the Missoula Zero Waste Resolution.

In 2017, as the second round of school buses began rolling up to Home ReSource for class field trips, the city of Missoula was hosting the ZERO by FIFTY community listening sessions to identify pathways to achieve the resolution’s goals.

Education has risen to the top of our community’s priorities in getting to Zero Waste. Residents recognize that whole-community education is essential to creating accessible, functional Zero Waste systems and services in Missoula. ZWAP! offers one such model for educating Missoula’s youth.

ZWAP! is an award-winning two-part educational adventure into reuse and other “R” words offered to fifth grade classes at no cost. Through a classroom lesson and an interactive field trip to Home ReSource, students draw connections between their personal choices and subjects including the Materials Economy, environmental science, resource conservation, and climate change.

With the Missoula Zero Waste Resolution came a commitment to reduce the city’s per-capita landfilled waste by 90 percent by 2050. With the 88 fifth-grade classes that have participated in ZWAP! to date has come the recognition that youth are committed to sustainability and capable of taking meaningful action to realize their visions for their community.

Next fall, local middle schools will be packed with three grade levels full of ZWAP! graduates. How will an entire student body empowered to make sustainable choices change the way those schools relate to — and reduce materials? How can we adults support the change these young Missoulians envision in classrooms, lunchrooms, and beyond?

Perhaps as one student suggested, we can start by keeping the big picture in mind: “Help our Earth stay healthy!” Perhaps, we can follow their lead and take more ownership of our choices, our impacts, and our inspirations.

Let’s join them in change. Let’s support their vision. And let’s start now.

Katie Anderson is serving as a Zero Waste Educator and Planner at Home ReSource through the Montana Energy Corps program.

Upcoming sustainability events

April 27: Arbor Day Celebrationat the State of Montana Arboretum from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

April 27-28: The Time is Now: Interfaith Action for Climate Justice, conference hosted by Faith and Climate Action Montana. Pre-registration encouraged.

May 3: Climate Smart Missoula Monthly Meetupon Local Food and Agriculture at Imagine Nation Brewing Community Room from 5 – 7 p.m.

May 3-4: Missoula Gives, a community philanthropy event hosted by the Missoula Community Foundation from 5 p.m. on May 3rd to 10 p.m. on May 4th.

May 9: Wildflower Walk with Milltown State Park staff and the Native Plant Societyat Milltown State Park from 5:30 – 6:30 pm.

May 18: Endangered Species Day Film Festival, hosted by Endangered Species Coalition & International Wildlife Film Festival at the Roxy Theater from 6 – 9 p.m.