The tangle of kids moved furiously around the bins after lunch. They tossed milk jugs in the yellow bin, napkins and half-eaten hot dogs in the green one and trays in the gray one.
Students at Baltimore's Federal Hill Preparatory School haven't just been recycling the usual items, like paper and plastic, this year. They've sorted everything — from crayon pieces and pencil shavings to leftover meals.
The full-bore effort to eliminate waste has been a project of Sheryl Barr's environmental studies class of sixth, seventh and eighth-graders, and has spread to many students' homes. If the kids have their way, it will become a model for the entire city school system.
"They're kind of like the recycling police now," said Susan Yum, parent of a second-grader. "They come home and say, 'Are you throwing that away?'"
The city picks up basic recycling from many schools, and at least a few other schools collect some compost, a portion of which goes to a city farm where food is grown for school cafeterias. A spokeswoman for the school system said the city wants to launch a broader recycling and composting program and hopes to start a pilot next year with 10 schools, though funding sources remain unclear.
Federal Hill Prep appears to have the most ambitious program now, collecting everything students can find homes for, including used batteries. They even tried recycling the crayon pieces themselves by peeling and melting them in an old Easy Bake Oven, but it made a bit of a mess so they now get shipped to a professional recycler.
As for the composting, a local company, Waste Neutral, collects and returns the material months later for use in the school garden.
To that end, Malani Burke, a seventh-grader from Northeast Baltimore, spends some of her lunch break every week minding the bins to ensure nothing is improperly tossed. But first students needed to learn what was recyclable and compostable.
"We had a recycling program but it wasn't doing well," she said. "We sorted 33 pounds of garbage and 15 pounds could have been recycled. We decided that was not good. That's like half."
The students got tips from professionals at Waste Neutral and Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., which operates a waste-to-energy plant in South Baltimore. It's owned by Waste Management Inc., which hauls city schools' recycling to its single-stream facility in Elkridge.
Wheelabrator works with classes from about 10 schools nationwide every year to promote green learning. The company kicks in $500 to start, hosts a symposium where students discuss how they've solved an environmental problem and then rewards the work with another $1,000, says Linda Sapienza, communications director for the program.
"It's important to get the next generation involved in environmental stewardship," said Sapienza, who said Federal Hill has participated since 2005. Calverton Elementary/Middle School also participates.
The Federal Hill Parent Teacher Organization, led by mothers such as Joanna Pi-Sunyer and Amy Caplan Stern, raised another $600, and the city's Office of Sustainability granted $1,000 for purchasing bins and supplies, taking field trips and paying the $145 a month to have the compost taken away and returned.
Keith Losoya, Waste Neutral owner, said the kids collected about 4,000 pounds of food waste this year. For every 2,000 pounds, a cubic yard of compost is returned. He said he's applied for a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency so he can expand the program to more schools in the region.
Brett Buikema, youth outreach coordinator for the city sustainability office, said that officials there also have been fundraising to further expand composting in schools, as well as programs to green the campuses and conserve energy. So far, the office has funded activities at 16 schools but called Federal Hill's the most ambitious.
If every school recycled, the system may be able to save money on hauling trash, said Pi-Sunyer, who has a first-grader and a pre-kindergarten student at Federal Hill. Other savings could come from little moves such as switching to reusable trays instead of unrecyclable Styrofoam.
But each school will have to determine what the students there can do, said Barr, the teacher.
"We started with the idea that we should know our garbage," Barr said. "We worked out what we could do on-site and what it would cost. We did a mini-composting program in the class to learn what it was all about."
Cobe Jones, a middle-schooler from West Baltimore who minds the cafeteria bins every Tuesday, said his class developed lesson plans for all the other grades. They tried to make learning fun by, for example, hosting a relay race where the students would pick items that were recyclable and race them to a bin.
Darius Brooks of Federal Hill said the littlest kids learned the fastest. Middle-schoolers were more stubborn. "They have other things on their minds," he said. "But if you throw everything away, it's a lot harder to sort afterward."
On a recent day, Cobe, Darius and Malani were outside for Family Fun Day, but vigilance was still required. The class made sure the bins, moved outside for the occasion, did not go unattended. They also staffed a table in the garden, where students picked a plant and potted it with garden soil and compost they proudly acknowledged came from their own lunchroom.