The students in New York Mills have worms.
And, it's a good thing. It's a very good thing.
Imported from California, a box of red worms recently arrived at the New York Mills School. With some help from students, these squiggly creatures will help the school cut back on the amount of paper and food waste produced each day.
The worms, and the two composting bins they will live in, are just one step in a series of actions the school is taking to teach students a new set of "3 R's": reduce, reuse, and recycle.
As Jess Steinbrenner stresses to the students, there's a reason those 3 R's are in that order. It's a matter of importance. The best thing people can do to help the planet is reduce the amount of waste being produced. As a second step, ways to reuse items should be looked at--with recycling as the final option.
Steinbrenner is the Public Information and Education Officer for the Otter Tail County Solid Waste Department. It was one of her goals to get a collection of "green teams" established in the county.
One of those teams is the group responsible for bringing the worms to the NY Mills School. This green group is comprised of teachers, school administrators, students, parents, and community members. They meet once a month at the school to discuss new ways to promote the 3 R's.
"The first step with all of this was a waste audit of the school," explains Steinbrenner.
At the beginning of this school year, the New York Mills School started using a number of big blue recycling bins, purchased by the Otter Tail County Recycling Center. There is no charge assessed to the school for picking up the recyclables.
"We did tackle recycling first in the school because the infrastructure was already there," says Steinbrenner.
However, just having the new bins was not enough to get students on track with recycling their waste. Even prior to the blue bins, the school recycled, but staff members reported that the wrong products were often thrown into specified recycling containers.
The new bins have a spot for plastic, aluminum, tin, glass, newsprint, shiny paper, and office paper.
In order to better inform the students about recycling, Steinbrenner speaks to the kids about how to use the bins, helping them to become educated recyclers. "The teachers also had an in-service where the teachers taught the teachers," explains Ann Myers, a teacher at the New York Mills School.
In fact, her classroom of 4th graders is serving as a pilot program for the worm composting bins. Her students will feed the worms, and complete writing assignments associated with the project. The other composting bin the school received through the OTC Solid Waste Department will go to the science room.
Myers has seen her students step up to the task of recycling with fervor, eager to share what they've learned with their peers. So far, they've taken what they learned from Steinbrenner and are spreading that information around the school, one classroom at a time.
The 4th graders have already spoke to the high school students about recycling, and are now addressing some of the younger grades.
The New York Mills 4th graders have also taken on the project of a recycling bin for the greater community. Through the Youth in Action Program, this project helps maintain a recycling bin the city can use.
"Mills was one of the very first schools to show interest in having a green team," Steinbrenner said, commending the NYM group for their interest in promoting the 3 R's in their community.
The New York Mills "green team" was recently selected as a charter member of Minnesota Schools Cutting Carbon. They will receive $500 in grant money for start-up and will now be eligible to compete in a $20,000 grant contest.
So far, the group has not determined how the grant money will be spent, but it will likely serve as a substantial start-up sum to get some of their brainstormed "green ideas" actualized in the NYM School.
At their Feb. 12 meeting, the green team talked about plans to move forward with some "reducing" and "reusing" initiatives. One example mentioned was an evaluation of the toxicity of the school's cleaning products.
The group is open to any interested students, parents, and community members. Those interested in finding out more about the NYM "green team" and the times they meet should contact Jess Steinbrenner at: jlsteinb @co.ottertail.mn.us.