Waste not, want not
Kristin Clark is a tree hugger and she's got the photo to prove it.
When the Sparta High School freshman was four years old, someone snapped a photo of her in an embrace with one of her leaf-bearing friends. The picture was prescient.
Clark's long-term goal is to someday become an environmental scientist for the EPA, "if it's still around," she says, referring to recent attacks on the agency. But for the short term, her sights are set on a unique program that encourages environmental sustainability on the local level.
Clark is among the newest crop of members of the Sparta High School Earth Club, which has already produced a remarkable cadre of young environmental activists bent on making the planet a better place.
The club's most notable accomplishment to date is its award-winning food diversion program, which removes leftover food and recyclable materials from the high school's lunchroom waste stream.
The program's centerpiece is a food digester located at the high school, which turns table scraps into nutrient-rich compost, reaping environmental as well as financial benefits.
Using less than $4 worth of energy, the digester turns 250 pounds of daily lunchroom food waste into 20 gallons of distilled water and 30 pounds of nutrient-rich compost in 12 hours. The digester has helped the school cut it’s lunchroom waste by 85%, reducing the number of times the school’s trash compactor has to be emptied into the Monroe County Landfill at $106 a trip.
The program has been in place at Sparta High School since 2015. But despite what seems to be a commonsense application that could benefit a wider part of the community, it has had trouble gaining traction outside the high school, even among the Sparta School District's other buildings.
That is until now. Clark was tapped to spearhead the program's expansion into St. John's Lutheran School in Sparta, the only other school so far to avail itself of the opportunity.
"We (the Earth Club) wanted to continue expanding our efforts and working to be more environmentally sustainable as a community," said Clark, who has helped St. John's replicate the high school's system. That involves separating lunch waste into trash, recyclables and food waste that is transported to the high school's dehydrator.
It's only been about a month since implementation, but Clark estimates that by the end of this school year, St. John's will save two tons of food waste from going into the landfill. On an annual basis, that translates into nearly $2,000 in savings from cutting its $3,800 garbage costs in half.
St. John's Principal Charles Lukasek can't understand why more schools haven't jumped onboard with the program.
"It's really not a burden on the school," he said. "There were very, very few kinks to work out. The student body has accepted it and the janitors love it. They can save a half hour a day not emptying trash."
Another benefit, he points out, is the school now gets a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the compost produced by the food digester. He plans to redirect those savings to teacher development.
"I would encourage other grade schools in the Sparta area to take advantage of the program," said Lukasek. "It runs itself."
Clark, who insists she is just one part of a group effort, said the Earth Club is excited about the project because it shows the potential of the food diversion program.
"We're hoping that now that this is on its feet, we can use it as an example for other schools to get them onboard," she said.
For Clark, this is just the beginning.
"I've always had this passion for the environment," she said. "I want to do all I can to help the environment. I know I'm not going to be able to stop climate change, but I'll be able to work hard and make as many little steps as we can."