Aldo Leopold Elementary School is leading a recycling revolution within the Madison Metropolitan School District, with the help of parent Kim Warkentin.

In 2014, Warkentin, whose son Myles was in kindergarten at the time, attended a school lunch with him and was surprised to discover the school was not recycling.

She started presenting recycling talks to the fifth grade class, she said, when she realized more extensive education efforts were needed. Initially, she said, the school just put out blue recycling bins, but some students would dump food into the bin, ruining that load of recycling.

She approached Chris Jimieson, a member of Fitchburg’s Resource Conservation Commission, and eventually decided to join RCC. The RCC helped Warkentin and Jimieson put together an outreach effort to get the school involved so students would be educated and excited about recycling.

It has resulted in a major effort by the school, a change in policy by the school district and a state recycling award.

For two years, they held recycling relay races with various grades to help them understand the importance of recycling and teach them about sorting waste into the proper bins for landfill, recycling and compost.

Warkentin also applied for grants from Target to take the third and fifth grade classes on field trips to tour the recycling center and county landfill, showing students the landfill is filling up, so recycling at Leopold would help prolong the number of years it has left.

In March 2018, she audited the waste in the cafeteria with the help of fifth graders, measuring and weighing the waste produced by K-5 students.

She discovered that 60 bags of waste were going to the landfill from the cafeteria every day and concluded the school could reduce waste by 75% by implementing a few changes, like sorting trays into stacks and recycling milk cartons.

Between the trays and cartons alone, Leopold decreased the number of daily garbage bags filled from 60 to 15, likely reducing the number of bags used per year by around 8,000, and the weight of trash by around 16,000 pounds. By doing this, the school reduced trash pickup days from five to three days a week.

All of these improvements provided significant cost savings for the school district. Jimieson said he hopes that the money saved by increasing recycling efforts will work its way across the district, eventually helping to fund a district sustainability coordinator.

“The thing I love about Aldo Leopold being the first elementary school in the district to put together a recycling pilot program is that it’s part of the namesake of the school, with Leopold having been a huge conservationist in Wisconsin,” she said.

Leopold’s name is ubiquitous in Wisconsin, adorning a conservation foundation, a nature center in Monona and a trail system, among other things.

When Warkentin began the recycling initiative, she learned that only three out of the 48 elementary schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District were recycling. Now she is taking what she has learned at Leopold and refining it into materials to share with other schools, and the district now has a goal to have all elementary schools recycling by the end of 2022.

In November 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources honored Leopold Elementary with a Wisconsin Recycling Excellence Award, one of 10 given out to schools and businesses. The award “recognizes a defined project or initiative that increases materials recycled or diverted, and/or improves the cost effectiveness of a recycling/diversion program.”

Jimieson said an important component to the continued success of recycling at Leopold is that Warkentin and other parent and staff volunteers have continued to put energy into the initiative beyond just getting it started. Volunteers monitor students daily to ensure the students properly sort waste into recycling, compost and landfill bins.

“If you don’t have the whole school invested, it can fall apart if the teacher or parent overseeing recycling leaves,” she said, “You have to work hard to make sure the custodial staff and administration are all brought in by educational outreach efforts and make recycling become a part of everyday routine.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.