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Windom teen reduces school cafeteria waste

Windom Area Middle School students separate their milk cartons before disposing of their remaining lunch waste as part of a districtwide milk carton recycling initiative implemented by Windom student Ella Smith. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)1 / 3
Windom Area Middle School students recycle their milk cartons as part of a districtwide initiative before dumping their remaining lunch waste. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)2 / 3
Ella Smith3 / 3

WINDOM — A Windom teenager hopes to make a big difference in the world, and she’s doing so one milk carton at a time.

Thanks to seventh-grader Ella Smith’s ingenuity and passion for the environment, students at Windom Area Schools are inexpensively recycling their milk cartons with relatively little effort.

“It’s so simple that I’m surprised more schools aren’t doing it,” said Windom Middle/High School Principal Jake Tietje of Smith’s milk carton recycling station, which recently earned second-place distinction at the Minnesota State Fair’s Youth in Action competition.

Prior to dumping their meal trays, students at both Winfair Elementary and the middle/high schools dispose excess milk by pouring it into a funnel centered in an upcycled table with a pail underneath. In a matter of seconds, they flatten the small cardboard milk carton and toss it in a perfectly square-sized slot in a garbage can separate from other food waste.

At an average of 950 lunches served daily district-wide, the impact Smith’s recycling station is making is huge, Tietje said.

The 13-year-old’s cafeteria invention was part of a classroom assignment that charged students to think of a unique, simple idea.

Then a fifth-grader, Smith didn’t have to think long about what she wanted to do.

“I always had some passion for recycling,” she said. “No one wants to live next to a landfill, and if the landfill gets too much food and cardboard and plastic, those things combined will make a big landfill that no one wants to live next to.”

The district supported Smith throughout her invention’s creation, adopting it and putting it into action. Implementation began in the Winfair Elementary cafeteria during the latter half of the 2016-2017 school year.  

“It’s a little bit harder to get the little kids to understand this, so I tried it out on them first and it went really well,” Smith said.

From there, she personally demonstrated the concept to students in fourth through sixth grades. She also made a tutorial video in which students in upper grades watched to learn how to make the simple adjustment in how they dispose of lunch waste. From now on, new kindergarteners will be instructed how to navigate through the recycling station at the beginning of each school year.

While the task isn’t complex, there was a bit of a learning curve students needed to navigate before completely mastering the objective. The most difficult aspect, Smith said, wasn’t that it was a hard concept. It took some time for students to retrain their old habits of considering their milk cartons garbage to recyclable material.

Now that the recycling initiative at Windom is celebrating its first anniversary, Smith has a couple other ideas up her sleeve to make her cafeteria even more environmentally friendly.  

“I hope to recycle the plastic forks and spoons,” she said, adding that she’s also looking into the idea of recycling the excess milk to nearby hog farms.

She’d also like to pitch her milk carton recycling project to other school districts in southwest Minnesota. She’s particularly hopeful that the Worthington School District will consider adopting her initiative.

“It’d be an honor to go to other school districts and spread my word,” she said.