The endeavor began with irritation. Perhaps even a degree of disgust.
As Westwood Middle School’s future campus gradually rose from the leveled lot its predecessor had occupied for decades along NW 15th Avenue, its current one increasingly resembled a dump. Members of the school’s environmental club didn’t like it.
“The school was very dirty, and it didn’t look well, so we wanted to clean it up,” said sixth grader Isaiah Pinero, 11.
And so Isaiah and approximately 20 of his classmates commenced a project that would ultimately lead to the recovery of more than half a ton of recyclable material by March 1.
Presently, Westwood Middle School consists of a cluster of portables, or modular buildings, positioned off NW 31st Drive but adjacent to the school’s original location. The so-called “swing” campus serves as a temporary home for Alachua County School District student bodies displaced when schools undergo renovation.
It is perhaps students’ ephemeral relationship with the site that has contributed to a somewhat lackadaisical attitude regarding litter.
“They just throw stuff down, and we got tired of seeing that,” said Ginger Fuller, a Westwood physical education instructor and the environmental club’s supervisor. “There was a group of kids who didn’t like looking at it, so we started picking it up during class; when they get done with their work, they pick it up.”
Fuller acquired five-gallon buckets and trash pickers, arm-length wands with handles at one end and trigger-activated, claw-like pinchers at the other. Student volunteers, working as pairs, dedicated approximately 30 minutes a day tidying the school grounds once they completed their classwork. They divided the contents of the buckets between two on-site dumpsters, one designated for trash and the other for single-stream recycling.
Sometimes they would uncover litter in odd places, like within a shoe-sized hole in a bathroom stall or within arm’s reach of a trash can, said sixth grader Jordan Donnelly, 11.
“That’s one of the things that bothered us,” Fuller said. “I’m big on if you’re walking around in clutter, then your mind is cluttered. So the cleaner your area, the cleaner, the clearer your mind. You’re going to look good, feel good.”
The students’ work helped lighten the load on school custodians and maintenance crews so they could concentrate on other projects, she added.
A friendly contest Fuller arranged between Westwood and another Alachua County middle school provided students with additional motivation: each campus would have the period between students’ return from Thanksgiving break until March 1 to collect as much glass, plastic and cardboard as they could, and the school with the heaviest load would win bragging rights.
Westwood’s teachers positioned recycling cans in their classrooms. Some set out bins to store –and offer for use – scores of discarded pencils environmental club members stumbled upon. Students hung informational posters across campus, including some revealing how long it takes a conventional plastic bottle to biodegrade (450 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund).
Soon students and staff members were even lugging their family’s recycling to school.
“We got wine bottles,” Fuller said. “People would bring their weekend party cans. But, hey, it all weighs.”
She employed a fish scale to record it all.
By March 1, Westwood’s haul weighed in at 1,112 pounds.
The teacher representing the competition declined to report the weight of the recyclables her own students collected, Fuller said.
“She wouldn’t tell me,” Fuller said. “Last time she told me, it was 23 pounds, but then they got a bunch of cardboard.”
Fuller created a banner to celebrate her students’ victory and hung it beneath the temporary sign temporarily designating the portables as Westwood Middle School. Inspired – and perhaps slightly intrigued by what they might still find – club members continue to collect litter around campus whenever they spot it. They plan to challenge the other middle school to another recycling contest in the future.
Environmental club member Jessie Whidden, 14, reflected on her classmates’ collective accomplishment.
“Nobody wants to be in a dirty school, and it’s great to know that we get to come to school in a clean environment, and our school isn’t dirty and gross,” she said.