Eastchester fifth grade teacher Dave O’Neil leads one of the most innovative sustainable environmental programs in the country at the town’s Anne Hutchinson elementary school.
In a two-pronged approach, O’Neil collects vast quantities of lunchroom waste and grows an organic vegetable garden. He composts the food for dirt, and sells containers like juice bags and potato chip bags to a recycling center.
The money -- over $7,000 in the past three years -- comes back to the school, where it was used to purchase a Chromebook Cart with 30 computers that students at the school share. “I don’t need grants or outside money to fund these programs,” O’Neil says. “These programs are totally sustainable.”
O’Neil dug his first garden at the Anne Hutchinson School when he arrived in 2003 and it has grown into a 400-square foot plot, plus five 200-square-foot plots, and a 1,000-square-foot butterfly garden. With help from the children he grows a wide assortment of vegetables -- tomatoes, peppers, Brussels sprouts and arugula -- and cooks them up in the class to serve to his students. “Parents tell me they can’t get their kids to eat vegetables, but they’ll eat them if the teacher tells them to,” O’Neil says. “You’ve got to balance out the flavors,” he says, recalling a recent dish of kale salad with balsamic dressing that included raspberries from garden. “The kids loved it.”
The recycling component is more complex. After food waste -- about ten gallons per day -- is collected from the lunchroom, some of it is added to composting bins. But there is too much of it to handle and the rest must be carted off with other waste to the incinerator in Peekskill. O’Neil says he looks forward to the day when Eastchester collects food waste to compost, as Scarsdale already does.
Plastic packaging is sorted in a collaborative operation that culminates with O’Neil filling up a refrigerator-sized box every few months and sending it via UPS to TerraCycle Inc., a Trenton, N.J. based firm that runs post-consumer packaging reclamation in cooperation with various manufacturers. An empty potato chip bag, for instance, is worth about 2 cents and O’Neil collects them by the thousands from Eastchester’s three elementary schools. O’Neil signed up with TerraCycle several years ago and says the Eastchester elementary schools are the only schools in the region that recycle so extensively.
“My OCD personality said, ‘look at all that collecting and sorting I could do’”, O’Neil said. “I put my passion into this.” The program has received honors from Eastchester, Westchester County and New York State. Most prestigious was the 2014 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools award, given to 48 schools nationwide for efforts to reduce environmental impact. Anne Hutchinson was the only winning school in New York.
O’Neil traveled to Washington D.C. to receive the award from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but was disappointed that his White House tour didn’t include a look at Michelle Obama’s organic garden. “It was just the standard tour,” O’Neil laments. He’s always on the lookout for new ideas to make things more sustainable.