2016-03-04 / Community

Sustainable SoPo

Tania Ferrante, local sustainability ‘hero’

When Tania Ferrante started teaching at South Portland High School in 2000, there was recycling in classrooms, but beyond that, not much was being done to reduce waste at the school. A handful of years later, Ms. Ferrante decided to take recycling to the next level and implemented a recycling program in the school’s cafeteria. However, the setup was not ideal and getting custodial staff on board and persuading students to use and understand the new system made success elusive. Ms. Ferrante quickly learned that food waste was the most problematic factor in having a successful waste reduction program in the cafeteria.

Fast forward about six years when she heard about Garbage to Garden and approached them about helping her start a composting program at the high school. Adding composting to the waste reduction efforts might be exactly what was needed to really make a difference. Also, renovations at the high school presented a unique opportunity to integrate new comprehensive waste stations for compost, recycling and trash into the overall flow of the new kitchen and cafeteria design. This allowed students and staff to more easily overcome previous barriers.

But the new physical setup was not the only or most important element in the successful composting and recycling program that has been in place since 2012. Students in the ecology class that Ms. Ferrante teaches through the Learning Alternatives program were given the task of helping to organize and implement the program. She understood that getting buy-in and support from all stakeholder groups in the building was another critical element of success. While Ms. Ferrante enlisted the help of leaders from Student Government, National Honor Society and Interact to help spread the word about the new program and how it would work, ecology students spoke with the principal, assistant principals, custodial and cafeteria staff, to persuade them to support their efforts. The payoff from this upfront investment of time, energy and attention showed in the immediate success of the program.

Representatives from Garbage to Garden and ecomaine were more than happy to help train and educate students during the first week and from there the program “just took off,” Ferrante said. The impact was immediate and significant. Before the program began, the cafeteria generated about 18 bags or about 140 pounds of trash per day. After recyclable and compostable materials were removed from that total, only about two bags or 40 to 50 pounds of trash per day, were going to the incinerator. Ms. Ferrante was thrilled by the success, saying, “Composting makes everything easy, even the custodians like it because it’s less messy,” with liquids going into the compost instead of trash. The program has not only led to the obvious waste reduction benefits, but the school community as a whole has benefited from the positive relationships and channels of communication created in the formative stages of the program.

Ms. Ferrante thought it was crucial to have the program be mostly student-led and sees it as a way to engage student in a positive way. Students are running the program, taking ownership and getting buy-in from the student body as a whole. A few students are even doing independent studies – collecting and analyzing program data, making changes and continuously improving the program. Ms. Ferrante seems very proud of her students, especially when she hears how they feel empowered to take the skills and knowledge they’ve gained about waste reduction, the environment and climate change into their lives outside of school and encourage others (parents, employers) to make changes. This type of action-based learning makes things we’re learning in the classroom much more tangible for students, she says.

Funding for the high school composting program has been cobbled together from a variety of sources over the years, starting with a class donation and including grants from Berlin City, Saco Biddeford Savings and ecomaine. Not limited by the boundaries of the high school, Ms. Ferrante recently formed an in-district sustainability committee with representatives from all schools to address districtwide sustainability initiatives with composting at the top of the agenda. She is hopeful that funding for composting at all schools will ultimately become a permanent part of the school department budget. Garbage to Garden is helping the committee create a plan to make such a centralized program affordable and so far, the central office of the school department has been supportive of the initiative.

Ms. Ferrante continues to charge ahead, thinking about and finding more ways to reduce waste and engage students around issues such as food and their role in society as consumers. Eventually, she would like to reduce the amount of food that is wasted in the cafeteria, address packaging from a variety of angles including the use of compostable forks and spoons instead of plastic (she’s already done away with Styrofoam trays) reducing food packaging by linking it to the idea of buying and eating locally grown food, as well as healthy eating in general. She also has students presenting her with new ideas as well, which is a testament to her ability to empower her students to think and act independently.

You can support the composting efforts of South Portland High School and other district schools with a fundraiser going on right now. When a South Portland resident opens a new account with Garbage to Garden, not only will the first month of service be free, but the school district will receive a credit of $14. The money will go right back into our districtwide composting program.

Tania Ferrante is a force to be reckoned with and a sustainability hero we all might try to emulate. Space is the limiting factor in what we can write here about her work, so be on the lookout for what is happening at the high school and in all South Portland schools because she is clearly leading South Portland in a more sustainable direction.

The South Portland Energy and Recycling Committee meets the third Wednesday of each month at the South Portland Community Center. Meetings start at 6:30 p.m. and are open to the public.

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