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Plum Creek Nature Center

At Plum Creek Nature Center in Joliet, Illinois, a work group was put in place to come up with a waste-free lunch program for students that visit for on-site programs. The pilot program was introduced to students who visited in the fall of 2006. The program was mandatory for all schools and, because it was the first time schools were introduced to this program, a contest was included. The Forest Preserve District mascot is a very large woodchuck named Willy the Will County Woodchuck, a Disney kind of creature; so the name of the contest became Willy’s Waste-free Challenge. The winners were the two classes—one from the K-3 age group and one from the 4th grade and above group—with the least amount of non-recyclable, non-compostable lunch garbage. Each winning class received a visit from Willy Woodchuck during Earth Week, and each student received a waste-free lunch kit.

As the schools called the nature center to book their programs, the person accepting the reservation explained the program to the reserving teacher to set the stage for what they needed to do with the students. The reserving teacher was advised to brief the teachers of the other classes who would be visiting. When the teachers’ confirmation permit was sent, several waste-free lunch handouts were included in the teacher packet—flyers announcing the Challenge, packing a waste-free lunch and avoiding a disposable lunch, and how to pack a waste-free lunch. We also included a sample letter that the teachers could send to the parents. Again, we encouraged the reserving teacher to make copies and give them to the other teachers in the group.

Materials that were purchased to carry out the weigh-ins were: three plastic containers labeled RECYCLING, COMPOST, and GARBAGE. At first we used a bathroom scale, but it only weighed in pounds. We then purchased a fish-weighing scale so we could hang the bag of garbage from the hook on the bottom. This registered increments as low as ounces. As it turned out, this also wasn’t small enough.

A weigh-in chart was designed to record date, school, teacher, grade, and weight of garbage. At the end of the lunch period, each naturalist discussed the program and its benefits with their class for the day, had the class separate their recyclables and compost items, weigh their garbage, and then recorded the weight on the chart.

The weights ran from a high of 7 lbs. of garbage to 0 lbs. 0 oz. The two winning classes each had 0 lbs. 0 oz. Both winning schools utilized all of the information supplied them, even to the point of using cloth napkins as a little tablecloth. Some of the schools had little contests between classes. In these respects it was a big success.

Certificates were provided at the end of the program.

Some of the things that we need to address for the spring program season are:

1. The reserving teacher didn’t share the information with the other teachers. As a result, those teachers were not aware of the program and therefore didn’t prepare the students to bring a waste-free lunch. We need to decide how to get information to the other teachers.

2. The fish scale was fine for the larger amounts of garbage, but when it came down to only a few pieces of paper, it wasn’t sensitive enough to register the exact weight. As a result, some teachers said to just consider it ¼ lb. rather than 0 lb. A more sensitive scale needs to be purchased..