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Gorham Middle Schoolers Win Statewide Recycling Contest
04/22/2013   Reported By: Samantha Fields

Today is Earth Day. To mark the occasion, students from several southern Maine middle schools gathered for an assembly in the gym at Gorham Middle School. Unbeknownst to them, they had been called together to learn the results of a statewide competition called the "Zero Waste Challenge." Samantha Fields was there.

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"I need a drumroll please. The winner of this year's Zero Waste Challenge is Gorham!"

For much of the past year, a team of seventh graders at Gorham Middle School have been working on ways to get their fellow students - and teachers - to stop throwing so much "stuff" away.

They started out with a waste assessment, which is a nice way of saying they dug through the trash at school to find out what people were throwing away, and how much of that could be composted or recycled. Conor Battaglia says that process made him think about garbage in a different way.

"I just kind of wouldn't think past my classroom," Battaglia says. "I'd see our recycling bin, and when it was gone it was gone. But when we started doing things like actually trying to sort it all and see how much there actually was, it was really surprising."

Battaglia says a class trip to an EcoMaine landfill really drove the point home. "I thought if I threw out one gum wrapper, and it could be recycled, it's no big deal," he says. "But, if I kept doing that over and over and over, I saw how much waste there was. And it really piles up."

"I really wanted them to learn about trash in general - I think it's something that not enough people in our society know about, is where our trash goes once we put it into the trash can," says seventh-grade teacher Sarah Rubin.

Rubin also wanted her students to see how real-life data collection could highlight some of the things they've been learning in the classroom. "It's a huge piece of what we do - sort of taking the real-world concept and matching it with the curriculum that we have. And I think that these kids really saw that data collection actually happens in real life, not just in a math book."

Rubin says she wanted the kids to understand that small changes - like putting out more recycling and composting bins - can have a huge impact.

Tom Twist is a sustainability officer at Chewonki, the outdoor education center that sponsors the Zero Waste Challenge, along with Poland Spring, Ecomaine and Pine Tree Waste.

He says that is a big part of the point - that the challenge is not just about getting schools to reduce waste. "It's about making an impact. And it's about proving to yourself that you can actually do something about this. That these problems are workable. It's about realizing that you have far more power than you give yourself credit for."

Zero waste 2As the winning school, Gorham took home a $2,000 check, which the school can use to help implement its zero waste plan, or to send students to Chewonki to learn more about zero waste and the environment.

Westbrook Middle School took second place -- which came with a $1,000 prize. And Molly Ockett School in Fryeburg was awarded $500 for coming in third. Massabesic Middle School in Waterboro, which placed third last year, won an additional $500 for its continued commitment to reducing waste.

Conor Battaglia says he was thrilled when he learned that Gorham had won the challenge. "I guess it means all our hard work paid off, and that it wasn't for nothing," he says. "We won, and now we can use this towards further education and stuff towards zero waste. So it was amazing."

Battaglia says he hopes he and his friends can bring everything they've learned about waste management, recycling and composting with them when they go to the high school. He says he'd also like to see the elementary schools jump on board, and eventually get the entire community down to zero waste.


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