Elizabeth McCook looked at the large brown construction paper hanging on the wall strewn with multicolored cut-out hands.
“We’re going to need more paper,” she said.
The hands, each signed with a name, represent all the students of Urbana High School who pledged to compost and recycle. The pledge was part of the second anniversary and celebration of the high school’s green initiatives.
The effort is led by the school’s GreenTeam, a group of students who are working to make Urbana High a Certified Maryland Green School through the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education.
Composting has been one of their first initiatives. Every lunch period, students are encouraged to separate their waste into four bins: trash, recycling, liquid and compost.
On average, the school sees a daily waste divergence rate of 20 to 30 percent, according to McCook, faculty adviser of the GreenTeam. The goal is to get daily divergence up to 50 percent. They hit that goal on Wednesday, the beginning of the second anniversary celebration.
Fifty-four percent of waste that day was diverted from the dumpsters, but McCook said that’s most likely because student volunteers were going around with the bins in the cafeteria.
Normally, there are no volunteers, but when there are, students are more likely to sort their waste correctly.
“Just the fact that [volunteers] were present made the students make better decisions,” McCook said. “I think that everybody knows it’s the right thing to do, it just takes a little extra effort.”
Ember Carerra, a junior at Urbana High and president of the GreenTeam, said composting has always been a tough initiative because of students’ ingrained practices.
“It’s hard for kids to change habits,” Carerra said. “Some people are resistant to it ... and composting is brand-new [in schools], so it takes more learning than sometimes people are ready to put in.”
For Rylee Ellis, one of the student volunteers, it hasn’t been easy.
“[Students] just think a bin is a bin and they throw in whatever they want,” she said.
Despite frustration, though, the GreenTeam is persevering and trying to get students to learn and pledge to have better waste habits.
Reminders about waste separation are announced throughout the cafeteria every day and McCook and the GreenTeam are working to recruit student volunteers who can monitor lunch periods throughout the year.
Carerra and McCook also hope to see composting implemented across the district. Composting programs are operating at 14 schools in the county, many of them elementary schools.
Starting at elementary schools is key, said Joe Richardson, who spearheaded the school composting effort. Both he and McCook say starting habits young is critical to maintaining the program.
“We’re hoping that the elementary kids who are doing it now will do it in middle school, and then, when they get [to Urbana High], it will just be what they do,” McCook said.
Carerra said she hopes the daily practice of composting will make an impact.
“People have to think about it, and if they’re thinking about it during one part of the day, maybe they’ll think about it other times and then they’ll think, what else can I be doing to help the planet?” Carerra said.
Sebastian Decady, a 10th-grader at Urbana High who also serves as a student volunteer in the cafeteria, said that’s what happened to him and some of his fellow volunteers.
“At one point we were all that ignorant person, but now we have a different insight on how this can affect our world,” he said.
And the global impact is the big mission, even though the effort may be small.
“No one small effort will change things as far as it needs to go, but if we don’t do all of the small little actions, there is no way we’ll get there,” Carerra said. “It’s our duty to make sure that our generation and all the generations after us have a habitable planet.”
Besides composting, the Urbana High GreenTeam is also working to implement a “No Idle Zone” initiative, which would require drivers who linger in the parking lot waiting to pick up students to turn off their engine in order to reduce the amount of carbon monoxide being released.
Carerra said that initiative is still in the early stages of development.