UPDATE with Video: Boise High School Sets Date for Sustainability Conference 

Boise High School teachers use Garbology inside–and outside—the classroom

From trash to (educational) treasure

Harrison Berry

From trash to (educational) treasure

Updated Feb. 3, 2016,  12:14 p.m.

A date and shortlist for a keynote speaker have been set for the upcoming Sustainability Summit at Boise High School.

Currently, project organizers are running a GoFundMe campaign to raise $3,500 to bring sustainability activist and author of Zero Waste Home Bea Johnson, or Mary Crowley of Project Kaisei to campus.

Johnson has lived in a waste-free home with her family since 2008, and speaks around the country about how a zero-waste ethic "cannot only be 'stylish,' but lead to significant health benefits, and time and money savings." Crowley's work with Project Kaisei is an initiative of the Ocean Voyages Institute—a project aboard a scientific sailing ship that studies, clears and raises awareness about marine debris and ocean trash. 

Two Boise High students took to the airwaves Feb. 2 to discuss the school-wide project on Radio Boise's "Building a Greener Idaho" program. Listen to audio from the interview here.

"We are plowing forward with great success on our little experiment at Boise High," wrote Boise High English teacher and project organizer Anna Daley in an email. "It's turning into a big event!"

The summit has been scheduled for Friday, April 8. As of this morning, the summit's GoFundMe campaign had raised almost $1,750.

Original Story Nov. 4, 2015, 4 a.m.

As part of a social experiment, Boise High School students in Erin Galinato's AP environmental science classes collected plastic grocery bags. The students found them at home, in garbage cans, on the street and in stores. When they returned to class, they'd collected about 2,000 bags. Tied end to end, they stretched half a mile—enough to circle the Boise High track twice.

"I wanted to see if we could wrap it around the school," Galinato said.

Students strung lengths of their grocery bag chain across the Boise High quad during the lunch hour on Oct. 9 as part of the school's campus-wide reading of Edward Humes' Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash, a popular 2013 investigation into humanity's addiction to trash.

The project put a copy of the book into the hands of each Boise High student, faculty member, and most administrators and support staff.

Called the "Big Read," the book is being worked into lesson plans across disciplines, from science and English to world history. It's the first campus-wide project of its kind at an Idaho public high school and is expected to spur independent projects and research from students.

Boise High's "Big Read" got its start after the school's first-ever Wellness Summit in May, when students took over classrooms to deliver presentations on various wellness topics. A group of teachers got to work convincing other educators about the value of teaching with Garbology and applying for grants through the Boise School District to purchase copies of the book.

The grants, totaling $14,000, have helped the school purchase 1,750 copies of Garbology. They've been barcoded and, at the end of the year, students will have the option of purchasing their copies or returning them to the school.

"If we build it, they will come," said English teacher Anna Daley.

Garbology examines Americans' garbage habits, from what we put in the trash to how landfills work. According to Humes, $50 billion in recyclable or reusable items and materials end up in landfills each year. During his or her lifetime, the average American will produce 102 tons of garbage.

The book takes readers to Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles County—America's largest at 500 feet high and covering 700 acres—and introduces bacteria found there that eat plastic. It also profiles people who work in or have made contributions to lessening waste, including people who work at landfills and families that have all but eliminated their trash footprint through composting, recycling and reuse.

The Garbology "Big Read" dovetails with district-wide sustainability efforts. In August 2014, Idaho Center for Sustainable Agriculture President Pete Pearson received a $15,000 Boise School District grant to begin a study of the environmental features of five Boise schools. What he found shocked him: South Junior High's halls were lit to college gymnasium standards—five times more illumination than was being used in the indoor walkways of Timberline High School. He removed 800 lights from the halls of South, which saved the school 5 percent on its electricity bill and caused a calming affect on the students as they walked the hallways.

"A little less lighting can change attitudes," Pearson said.

His efforts have included activities that promote a zero-waste mentality among students and staff, like school-wide composting projects; "shutdown days," when a school unplugs all unnecessary appliances before holidays and weekends; and "zero waste days," during which students are enlisted in waste and recycling activities. A school that produced half a Dumpster of garbage a day could, on zero waste days, reduce its trash output to a single garbage can.

Faculty at Boise High have similar projects in mind, but teachers have also incorporated Garbology into their lesson plans. During the kickoff party in the quad, students tossed plastic wrappers through hoops into recycling bins and students explored Galinato's plastic bag classroom project. Other teachers have taken note. John Coulthard, who teaches AP economics and AP world history has introduced the text into a unit called the Culture of Consumerism alongside articles, chapters from other books and documentaries. The book illustrates concepts like supply and demand and materialism as underpinning Western civilization, but Garbology has applications in departments across the school, from physics and biology to statistics and art.

"It's a perfect book for cross-disciplinary learning," Coulthard said.

Students in Coulthard's classes will also use the text as part of independent research projects to be presented at the end of the semester. He and other teachers said those projects may feed into a future day-long, campus-wide activity similar to the Wellness Summit, where students take over classrooms to share their learning with others. Daley said the book is a treasure trove for students and teachers because it offers educators opportunities to explore academic concepts through a common lens and take learning outside the traditional classroom setting.

"We think the book has some inspiring ideas and some really interesting material for students to think about," she said. "The book has plenty of suggestions for action, and we really like to see our students and teachers go beyond an academic discussion and into action on things."

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