Trouble with Truckee takeout: Glenshire Elementary fifth graders win EcoChallenge award for work to ban Styrofoam containers
Shane McConkey EcoChallenge winners
When it comes to dining out at one of Truckee’s several dozen restaurants, leaving with a polystyrene container — more commonly known by its trademarked brand, Styrofoam — is often an afterthought.
During this past school year one local classroom set out to change that, and as a result were awarded $8,000 as this year’s Shane McConkey EcoChallenge winners.
Kristi Scholl’s fifth-grade class at Glenshire Elementary School, in Truckee, began looking at ways to ban Styrofoam in Truckee as part of a classroom project, later narrowing their scope to creating a push to eliminate Styrofoam containers at local restaurants.
“I just decided to do it. A lot of our California state standards are aligned with research, public speaking, presenting appropriately toward a certain type of audience, and a lot of the science standards are about the human footprint,” said Scholl, who is a sixth-year teacher and recently finished her first at Glenshire. “I just looked at my curriculum and I was like, ‘I can totally weave this together, create awareness and meet common core standards — the gathering of data, the graphs, the writing, the interviewing, the surveying, all of it — I can find a way.”
The project would entail members of the classroom surveying local restaurants on polystyrene usage, researching the material, and also speaking in front public audiences, which included members of the Truckee Town Council.
“I was interested in doing the EcoChallenge because even though this world is messed up, we have the ability to change it,” said student Kaile Nemeth.
The classroom and Scholl embarked down an unorthodox path this year, as teacher and students alike learned what it takes to make a difference within a community, while also intertwining the specifics of the project with the student’s curriculum.
“I learned that kids are capable and can do things that adults can do, and that we are in charge of our environment,” said student Indy Boyer.
Instead of the typical rhetoric found in textbooks, Scholl entrenched the classroom with real-world problems as part of the Shane McConkey EcoChallenge’s contest to encourage children to identify and help resolve issues in their school and community.
The fifth-graders at Glenshire immediately took up the cause.
“I presented it to the kids. I showed them the website and I asked if it would be something they’d be interested in doing,” said Scholl. “And they were like ‘Definitely we want to do it.’ So we started brainstorming.”
The classroom settled around the issue of polystyrene, and began looking at ways of eliminating the product. They soon focused on banning the containers at local restaurants.
The group sent out surveys to Truckee-area restaurants, of which there are roughly 150 according to Scholl, and found that around 17 used polystyrene containers for takeout meals.
“So we came up with a plan to see if these restaurant owners would switch to something more eco-friendly, something recyclable or compostable,” Scholl said.
The classroom was then split into groups to tackle researching alternative containers and price, negative impacts of polystyrene on the environment, and the impact of chemicals from the product getting into food.
After two months of work the fifth graders reported: consumers are willing to incur a small charge for eco-friendly takeout containers; Styrofoam takes more than 500 years to decompose, while other containers take less than three months; ingestion of polystyrene can lead to long-term health issues; Many cities including New York, Portland and Seattle have banned Styrofoam; switching to an eco-friendly container would cost most restaurants less than 50 cents per container; Truckee doesn’t currently recycle Styrofoam; roughly a quarter of local restaurants don’t use eco-friendly containers.
Making a difference
Upon completion of the class’ research, Scholl said around eight other restaurants had switched from using Styrofoam containers. During that time students and their parents continued to push the cause, boycotting restaurants that use the containers, while calling others ahead of time to let them know they would be bringing their own container for takeout.
“That’s eliminating waste all together,” said Scholl. “They just became so aware. I was so proud that they were so aware of the impacts of all this unnecessary waste.”
Last spring the class was awarded first prize for the annual Shane McConkey EcoChallenge, winning the school $8,000.
With students leaving for sixth grade, Scholl said the foundation and school have been flexible with the potential use of the funds. One project Scholl said they were looking at is purchasing needed additional bike racks at Glenshire Elementary.
The project was the first of its kind for Scholl, and she said she intends on pursuing another EcoChallenge project with next year’s fifth-grade class.
“It’s a lot of extra work. It was really time consuming, and I had to really count on the kids and trust them to complete a lot of work outside of school,” said Scholl.
“As a teacher I’m super busy with a hundred other things, but I had some awesome parents step up to the plate to help with the EcoChallenge.”
For students the project took classroom lessons and applied them to real-world situations. The youngsters had to learn data collection, research, use of math and writing skills, and got a brief foray into town council politics.
“Other than learning how bad Styrofoam is for our environment,” said student Kaile Nemeth, “I also learned important life skills such as presenting, surveying and communicating.”
Moving ahead Scholl is confident her departed fifth-grade class will continue the push for a Styrofoam ban, while also mentioning talk of the item reaching the Truckee Town Council’s agenda for a future session.
“The most important thing is we really got the word out, and really changed a lot of people’s thinking,” said Scholl.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.