How much waste does The Foote School produce in a single day? It's a knowable figure. And a fifth grade student recently combined his passion for the environment with a spirit of mathematic discovery to find out.
A few months ago, fifth grader Dwyer Illick asked Lower School Math Chair Heather Zetterberg to assist him in calculating how much waste the school creates in a given day. His goal was to find ways to reduce the amount of trash Foote generates—and to inspire others to take up the cause.
It's just the kind of authentic learning that Foote is known for: a student-led project that combines curiosity, academic pursuit and a passion to make positive change in the community.
During the last week of February, Dwyer and Heather collected garbage from the two second grade classrooms. They sorted it into recycling, trash and food, and measured the volume of each. Recently, Dwyer presented the findings from this independent math project to the second graders, along with his four recommendations for generating less waste.
On a long table, Dwyer laid our cardboard boxes that represented the volume of waste collected each of the five school days in February. Each box was labeled with a different symbol: a recycling bin to represent anything that could be recycled; a garbage truck for plastic trash liner bags and paper towels; and a food symbol for compostable things and single-use food containers, such as squeezable yogurts, chip bags and fruit cups.
His first observation was that the trash contained a fair amount of recyclable and compostable material. His second observation was the enormous volume of paper towels and plastic bags in the garbage.
"The first thing we could change is simply to recycle the recyclables. That would take care of this box," Dwyer told the second graders, as he removed the box with the blue bin sticker.
The paper towels and plastic bags are a little more complicated, Dwyer said, but he brought one solution inspired by the efforts of some of Foote's youngest students: First graders in Cara Hames' and Susie Grimes' class have been working all year to reduce their classroom waste using simple, common-sense steps. Among them, first graders now use dish towels brought from home instead of paper towels. The class also got rid of their trash can (and the associated plastic liners) by fashioning a new classroom garbage can out of a plastic animal cracker tub.
By following the first graders' lead, and composting more of their lunch waste, Dwyer calculated that the second grade would cut their classroom waste from 581 cubic inches per week to just 40 cubic inches—a reduction of 88 percent!
Next came the whole-school extrapolation. Assuming every class generates a similar volume of waste, Dwyer calculated that Foote would produces 14,556 cubic inches of waste every single day—or 73,000 cubic inches a week. To illustrate that figure, Dwyer pointed to a teetering tower of Home Depot moving boxes stacked floor to ceiling in Hilary Pearson's second grade classroom.
"If we made the changes I'm talking about, we could go from these five boxes to little over half a box," said Dwyer. "That would mean we avoid making 64,000 cubic inches of waste each week."
Heather, who met with Dwyer before and after school over several months, says he came to her with a sense of purpose and excitement. "He wanted to develop a project that would be meaningful and make a difference. He attended to details and asked thought-provoking questions. It was a great moment when, toward the end of the project, Dwyer reported, 'I had no idea how much math I was going to learn and use!'"
Those lessons are now being employed at home, too. "In our house, Dwyer has us all composting, recycling better and using far fewer paper towels, eating less meet," says his mom, Alison Illick. "It's nice to have a change agent in our midst."