GORHAM – A deafening drum roll filled the Gorham Middle School gymnasium Monday as 700 students from Gorham, Westbrook, Waterboro and Fryeburg waited to hear who would win a recycling challenge.
Gorham walked away with the grand prize of $2,000, but a spokesman for the Chewonki Foundation, which ran the competition, said she felt all four communities won.
“The Zero Waste Challenge is all about how to make a positive impact in the world. I’m deeply impressed with all of you. It takes a lot of courage, it’s not just about garbage, it’s about proving to yourself you can make a difference,” Tim Twist, sustainability officer at Chewonki, told the audience. “A lot of schools think the waste problem is an impossible task.”
Thirteen seventh-grade middle-school classrooms participated in the Zero Waste Challenge, presented by environmental learning group Chewonki, by sending in videos and brief presentations outlining how each school reduced waste inside their buildings.
“It was really inspiring to see how seriously all the student groups took the contest in terms of managing their waste,” said Betta Stothart, communications director at Chewonki.
Stothart said most of the schools focused on the cafeteria as a focal point to cut down on waste because food is heavy and changing the way garbage is handled can effect savings, both economically and environmentally, in the rest of the school.
A second point of focus for the students was composting. Many of the schools focused on developing a sustainable composting program. In Gorham, the students are using their compost, made from food in the cafeteria, to help grow the school’s garden. In Westbrook, students will sell their compost, also made from recycled cafeteria food, to help sustain their zero waste program.
“It’s saddening that we live in an agricultural, rural state and not many people compost. It’s not a difficult thing to do and it can have a huge impact on waste removal,” said Stothart.
Stothart said some of the other interesting changes she’s seen in the schools as a result of the program include getting rid of plastic silverware in exchange for reusable cutlery, and using a milk dispensary instead of buying individual-sized milk cartons.
Everyone in the audience Monday was affected by the program, according to the informal pole by Twist at the beginning of the event.
“The students here educated their own peers and infected them with their passion for the project,” said Leo Maheu, an educator at ecomaine and a judge in the contest.
For Stuart Axelrod, a manager at competition sponsor Pine Tree Waste, supporting the program makes sense for him both personally and professionally.
“When I was growing up, as a kid there was literally no recycling. I’m sure I didn’t even know the word. I had a neighbor who worked on his car in the back yard and there was a hole back there he’d pour his oil into. In less than a generation, the whole view has changed. We decided as a company we no longer wanted to be in the trash business. It’s in my best interest to see them eliminate the waste,” Axelrod said.
Pine Tree Waste has been moving more toward recycling by giving customers larger recycling containers and using more efficient vehicles.
The winning group from Gorham consisted of 44 students who hung signs around school informing their fellow students of what could be recycled and steering the school administration to buy smarter when making purchases, such as buying new reusable silverware and recycled products.
Students also got a chance to visit the waste facility at ecomaine and see how burning trash can be used to make electricity. They also visited a landfill to see what a few years of waste actually looks like and how trash can impact the environment.
Robert Riley, Gorham Middle School principal, said that student planning for it was intense and the students would determine how winnings would be utilized.
Gorham Superintendent Ted Sharp cited the importance of a young generation’s focus to minimize the waste society produces.
“This is where it has to begin,” Sharp said prior to the middle school ceremony. “They have a great enthusiasm for it.”
Second-place winner of $1,000, Westbrook Middle School students, reduced the amount of trash coming out of the cafeteria by 94 percent and increased recycling by 50 percent by making a few simple changes, like teaching students what should go into recycling bins, trash bins and composting bins.
“It takes a strong stomach to make a difference. When we first started, some people thought it was unnecessary, but they’ve changed their minds,” said Shania McCrillis, a 13-year-old seventh-grade Westbrook student, to the crowd.
McCrillis was referring to her time spent digging around the trash to weigh and measure what was really trash versus what could be recycled and composted, a study all the competing schools undertook at the beginning of the project.
Both Gorham and Westbrook students said they have changed their ways since learning more about what trash does to the environment and simple changes to make it less of a problem.
Students from the Molly Ockett in Fryeburg came in third and were awarded $500. The school focused on educating their peers on what items to recycle and added bicycles into the project to help shrink their carbon footprint. Massabesic Middle School in Waterboro was also awarded $500 for competing for a second year in the contest.