Corner Brook kids swap recess for recycling, and make their whole school greener
Science Club took action after realizing their school threw paper in the trash
In late June, the Corner Brook Intermediate cafeteria is like a giant kettle of kids bubbling with excitement over summer vacation, mere days away.
But some of the school's 650-odd students are more interested in garbage than gossip, as they keep busy checking on the recycling bins at the edge of the room.
These middle schoolers are members of the Science Club, and for months they have been sacrificing some of their free time, after noticing a troubling trash problem at their school.
There was no paper recycling.
"It's kind of ridiculous," said Rebecca Pye, a club member and Grade 8 student.
"Schools go through a lot of paper, and they didn't have anything to do with it. They just threw it in the garbage."
On top of that, beyond a few bins in the cafeteria, there were no other places to recycle beverage containers in the school. Dismayed by the mounds of math tests and homework handouts being tossed, the club decided early in the school year to take things into their own hands.
Of course, they did ask the principal for permission first.
Recycling in the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District is left up to individual schools to work out with the local waste management authority, and widespread recycling is relatively new to Corner Brook, along with all of Western Newfoundland. Mandatory curbside pickup rolled out less than a year ago, and it still doesn't extend to commercial businesses or institutions.
But anyone can drop off paper products and containers at depots if they are so inclined.
The students placed a bin each for paper and containers in every classroom, and then dedicated their lunch times to emptying, washing and sorting in a second floor science lab, acting like "sneaky little elves" according to club member and Grade 7 student Devon Jennings.
"We did a lot of work," said Ayah Alchepli, a member in Grade 8.
That work was also often dirty, as less-conscientious students sometimes tossed half-full energy drinks and iced teas and the club was left with swampy, sticky bins. And there were a lot of those bins, as the recycling rounds soon required more than the initial twice-weekly checks.
"They started coming in first thing in the morning, they've been doing it at recess times, lunch times," said Shelly Hicks, the head of the science department.
"They're so motivated. They want to make a change, and that's exactly what they're doing."
They may have given up their spare time, but for a group of kids who already eagerly volunteered to help with the science lab's hydroponics system, it wasn't a big deal.
"I just think, if all the schools don't recycle, that it's not very good," said Rachel Reid, in Grade 8.
"Because we're going to keep making paper, we're going to keep using it, and it's going to keep going in the landfill unless we do something about it."
To get more than just the most environmentally conscious kids on board, Rick Collins, the school's learning resource teacher, began the onerous task of grant writing.
Collins' paperwork paid off, literally. Corner Brook Intermediate received two grants from the non-profit groups Learning for a Sustainable Future and the World Wildlife Fund, totalling $1,000 — money that was spent to buy 70 virtual reality headsets for the school.
The Science Club then used the headsets to lead students in ever science class in the school on tours of a plastic-choked beach in Gabon, and a recycling facility in New York City.
It's sad, how everything we use can't be used for something else.- Rebecca Pye
Surrounded by forests and bays, it's easy to take Corner Brook's near-pristine surroundings for granted, and the headsets provided a low-carbon footprint field trip that drove home how drastic the global trash problem is.
"It taught people about how places can get very polluted," said Jennings. "It was cool."
"It's humbling," said Collins, of the Science Club's overall initiatives. Hicks agreed.
"I think that's what our environment and our future needs, basically, Kids like these."
A not so bright future?
Amid near-daily reminders of the planet's climate crisis, it's difficult to think about the environment the Science Club and other kids could to inherit.
"It's kind of a thing I don't like to think about," said Jennings. "When you think about global warming and all that, it brings up the big fact that Earth is a scary place."
The club's efforts have also opened members' eyes to the larger problems plaguing our disposable culture, and how recycling may not be the best solution after all.
"It's sad, how everything we use can't be used for something else," said Pye.
"We need to recycle, and we need to reuse. We need to reduce the amount we use daily. Because without that, soon everything in the world is going to be gone and we'll have nothing else to use."
Since starting to sort through student trash, club member Heather Flight has vowed to use less plastic herself.
"When we're going around doing our rounds, we find lots of plastic water bottles. And I think a way that we could reduce a lot of this recycling, as much as recycling is good ... [is] if everybody brings their own reusable water bottle."
Next year, new schools?
As she contemplates the amount of plastic she's seen pile up in the last few months, Flight said recycling can seem daunting in a community where it's a relatively new concept.
"Lots of people might be afraid to start, because they don't know how to start," she said, her sunny attitude re-emerging from behind its temporary thundercloud.
"But you can start with the simplest little things ... just placing a bottle in the right bin can make a world of difference, and you can just keep building your way up."
All the members vow that in September, they'll keep pushing for change, and not just within the walls of Corner Brook Intermediate.
"My sister goes to the high school and she hopes they will start to do recycling," said Reid.
Sarah Pembroke, a club member and Grade 8 student, agreed.
"We want to help, the best we can. It is one school, so maybe if other schools see what we're doing, then they'll realize how much paper is being thrown away and how much we can do."