Alpha student dishes up a new approach
Alpha secondary student Tomas Lang was helping clean up after an event at school a year ago when he saw how environmentally-unfriendly such occasions typically are.
There was little effort made to recycle with only a few beverage containers diverted from the trash can, and all the plates and cutlery used were disposable.
"Everyone was just sweeping everything off the tables into garbage cans," recalled Lang, now 14 and in Grade 9.
"It was kind of worrisome that sustainability is such a big issue but so many students are uneducated about it and there's no infrastructure to make it easier for them to learn about it."
So he decided to do something.
In talking it over with his family, he realized the key to changing students' behaviour is to make the alternatives easy and convenient.
Lang's mother told him that when she was a student at Burnaby North, they only ever used ceramic plates and metal cutlery at school events.
He then set about securing grants for his project. Lang won $1,000 through Changepilotz, an initiative of the Global Stewardship Program at Capilano University, and another $1,000 from Ashoka Canada, an organization that supports social entrepreneurship.
Already he's purchased a set of 200 plates and cutlery from Ikea for use at Alpha functions and another set of 50 which he donated to his former elementary school, Sperling, for their use. With the money left over he's looking into adding mugs to the set, as well as buying and installing a portable dishwasher at Alpha.
That would go a long way towards the convenience factor.
The new dishes were introduced at a pancake breakfast held at the school in December and while it went over well, with Lang identifying areas of improvement such as a need for more instructional signage, he ended up taking all 200 plates and the cutlery home to run it through the dishwasher.
Nevertheless, Lang proudly notes that using the plates and having a separate container for students to deposit food scraps led to a reduction in garbage and an increase in material headed for composting. And with disposables costing $20 to $30 per event, the dishes will eventually pay for themselves.
Lang plans to make the dishes available for borrowing by Alpha's feeder elementary schools and is working on a "tool kit" with step-by-step advice on how to run a green event which he'll make available online.
He's hoping to encourage all other Burnaby high schools to invest in similar sets of dishware so that they're eventually available to all schools in the city.
"Instead of promoting recycling, we need to promote reducing [garbage] because recycling is not going to get us to zero waste," said Lang, who is considering pursuing a career as an environmental engineer.
Meanwhile, at Alpha he's now referred to as "the plate guy" among some students.
"People make that connection," Lang said with a smile, "which is kind of cool, I've got to admit."
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