Earth Day Trash or Cafeteria Treasure?

I had intentions of scouring the internet for the perfect Earth Day activity. Luckily, I came across this:
I saw Beyond Traditional Math’s lesson on the Pacific Garbage Patch, and more than anything, I was impressed with his work and inspired to learn more about this floating mass of plastic-y mess twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. His focus on this Plastics issue made me examine where this permanent substance permeates our lives.  In short, every single piece of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still on earth today. Every. Single. Bit.

I showed this video from the blog post in my classes today:

I supervise the lunch room each day for about 30 minutes and I was in awe as I watched student after student empty his or her tray into the garbage.  Each time, I watched at least one plastic utensil fall into the trash.  One, after another, after another.  I inquired with the cafeteria staff how many of this flatware was disposed of each school year at our school.

Stop for a second:  1500 high school students.  How many plastic tableware do you think we toss out every year?

According to the super-helpful cafeteria staff, we started the practice of using disposable forks, spoons, sporks, and knives after it was discovered that much of our metal silverware was ending up in the trash.  (The pig farmer that collected the compost for feed was not too keen on metal spoons ending up in his pig feed.)  I was informed that we go through as a high school, about 3 cases of forks, 2 cases of spoons, 2 cases of sporks, and 1 case of knives each week.  That’s 8 cases, 1000 per case, every week, for 40 weeks.  320,000 pieces of plastic, every school year, in the trash.  And that plastic lasts forever.  In the trash.

Now, I didn’t want to go about suggesting to a hardworking group of school cafeteria employees that they should change their utensil type because I’m on an Earth Day mission.  But, I thought it was an interesting question to pose to my 5th hour Algebra class:  which would be better to use and why?

I was very impressed with the detail and consideration they applied to the question.  How much metal silverware would be needed to supply the entire school for a day?  Is there time to wash them between lunches?  Between breakfast and lunch even?  Should we consider that extra labor and water cost in the price of the metal tableware?  How would we estimate that?  How can we condition the entire school to stop tossing the silverware and throw it into a separate bin when returning trays? Wouldn’t the metal utensils end up in the trash, costing more money?

We found out that there was definitely a financial savings when purchasing metal utensils of approximately $1500 per year.  I asked the students to weigh in on whether this was worth the hassle of the switch.  I love the interesting answers I get from questions like this.  I didn’t necessarily know what to expect, but I got some very thoughtful answers which considered many of the variables in play in this situation.  The discussion seemed to indicate that the students recognized that even a small switch like plastic or metal utensils requires careful consideration and precise implementation and wouldn’t operate like an on/off switch.  A good day.

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