2018-05-31 / News

Fourth-graders ditch plastic for silverware

Melrose eyes ocean pollution with program

Fourth-graders in Julie Geary’s class presented a video during lunch that outlined the negative impact of plastic utensils. Melrose School principal Carrie Petersen was persuaded, and has since allowed students to use silverware on a trial basis. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Fourth-graders in Julie Geary’s class presented a video during lunch that outlined the negative impact of plastic utensils. Melrose School principal Carrie Petersen was persuaded, and has since allowed students to use silverware on a trial basis. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN The fleet of the Volvo Ocean Race reached Europe after departing Narragansett Bay two weeks earlier, but the regatta’s message has left an impression in its wake.

Julie Geary’s fourth-grade class at Melrose School introduced a pilot program in which plastic forks and spoons have been replaced by silverware. The program, which will run through the school year during third- and fourth-grade lunch, was conceived by the students following a lesson that outlined the dangers of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. That enrichment class, co-led by Geary and librarian Lisa Casey, was inspired by the Volvo race’s emphasis on protecting the sea.

According to Geary, the class was discussing the plastics used daily by the students. One student mentioned plastic forks in the cafeteria, which led to a simple response from a classmate: “Why?”

“I thought about it that night and brought it back to them the next morning,” Geary said. “We decided that was a problem we were going to solve.”

The plastic pandemic

The students created a campaign to bring silverware into the lunchroom because they learned plastic utensils regularly find their way into the ocean. They had also learned about the so-called Pacific garbage patch, a gyre of marine debris floating in the northern Pacific Ocean.

“Plastic’s bad for the environment,” fourth-grader Ava Fulford said. “If we keep hurting the environment, there’s going to be none of it left.”

“We chose this because millions of plastic spoons and forks get thrown into the ocean every day,” classmate Brenna Malloy added. “We don’t want that to happen.”

Geary’s students broke into groups to research the problem. For example, a group studied the cost of replacing the disposable plastic forks with silverware. The students learned it would be cheaper to use silverware because those utensils could be washed and reused, not thrown out.

“I had very little to do with it,” Geary said. “The kids decided to solve that problem. They put a lot of work into this.”

The students then hosted a conference in which they pitched their idea to principal Carrie Petersen, superintendent Ken Duva, nurse Patty Toracinta and representatives from Aramark, the school’s food supplier. Geary said the program garnered whole-hearted support, and the students were given approval to introduce silverware into their lunch period for the last few weeks of school. The class deduced they needed 274 sets of spoons and forks for their classmates, so Aramark provided them.

The program was introduced May 17 through a film presentation by Geary’s students. It included a video by Greenpeace detailing the manufacturing of a single disposable spoon, with an epilogue filmed in the Melrose makerspace featuring fourth-graders Malloy, Ella Gregoire and Charles Chamberlain. They encouraged their classmates to make the switch.

The silverware officially was introduced four days later. The utensils are given to students with their meals just like the plastic ones. They also are being made available to children who bring their lunches from home. That’s because some parents, according to fourth-grader Lauren Hund, won’t let their kids bring silverware from home.

“So, we let everyone use it,” she said.

Wash not waste

Instead of throwing away their forks and spoons when they are finished eating, the children were instructed to leave the silverware in two bins filled with soapy water, one for forks and the other for spoons. Volunteers from Geary’s class were posted near the bins to remind their classmates not to dispose of their new utensils. One of the conditions by Aramark was the retention of silverware.

“They need to be convinced that we’re not going to throw away the silverware,” Geary said during the presentation. “That’s a hard habit to break because you guys have been throwing away your plastic silverware since you were in kindergarten. We’re going to be washing them instead of throwing them away.”

At the end of every lunch, Geary’s students have inventoried the silverware to determine if they were missing any forks or spoons. Following the first week, every piece was accounted for.

“Hopefully the number remains low,” Geary said.

The third- and fourth-graders have reacted positively to the silverware. Hund said her classmates were “really pumped” about the new additions to their lunch. She also noted that most students have voluntarily stopped using plastic straws, completely independent of their silverware project.

“They did it because we were learning about it,” she said. “It’s another really bad thing for the environment.”

Geary and her class hope the pilot program convinces the school and Aramark to permanently replace the plasticware with silverware next year. Although there are no plans to expand the program to the middle school, Geary is certain the idea will surface at Lawn School when the fourth-graders head there in the fall.

“I truly believe that these kids are such spitfires that they’re going to be loud at the middle school and it will happen at the middle school, too,” she said. “They’re not going to let it go.”

In the past, silverware had been used by the school district, but neither Petersen nor Geary know when or why the switch was made to plastic. The majority of school systems in Rhode Island have also used plastic utensils for decades.

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