Rain clouds hung over Crescent City and the ground was soaked one day last week, but Joe Gillespie still put his Garden Club students to work. A handful of kids canvassed the playground for trash, filling two plastic garbage bags. Seventh-grader Britney Strom and sixth-grader Gaoly Xiong stayed in the greenhouse, harvesting seeds from a dinosaur kale plant, surrounded by dozens of tiny broccoli plants.
"We're trying to grow crops that we can take to the cafeteria and give to the cooks," Gillespie said. "(We have) broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage started from seed."
The seventh-grade science teacher has kept a garden at Crescent Elk Middle School for roughly 19 years and has headed the school's Garden Club for nearly seven. He has also been teaching his students about sustainability for the past five years, showing them that living green is not only good for them, but will be good for their children and their children's children.
Gillespie's students aren't the only kids in Del Norte County Unified School District learning to be more environmentally conscious. Students at 10 schools have been involved in a recycling program geared toward reducing the amount of waste produced at lunch.
"The kids are recycling all of their lunch items," said Lorie Poole, recycle coordinator with Recology. "We are tracking their milk cartons, their Styrofoam trays and their paper board trays so we know how much the schools are recycling by pound."
To teach kids about what can be recycled, Poole and volunteers give a presentation and then stay behind at the school sites for a week helping students sort their recycling items. In nine months, the first five schools that participated recycled 1,216 pounds of milk cartons, 664 pounds of paper lunch trays and 776 pounds of Styrofoam lunch trays, Poole said.
This year, Recology has kicked off recycling programs at Crescent Elk Middle School, Del Norte High School, Redwood School and Margaret Keating School.
"By doing this, the children are learning to recycle obviously, and also they'relowering their trash bill
because the more they recycle the smaller their trash bin is," Poole said. "It's actually saving the schools that are doing it properly a good amount of money."
Back in July 2011, the district's monthly trash bill had increased from $13,239 a month to $21,215. Cutting back on its trash, decreased the district's bill to $19,228 a month. The district's trash bill decreased further to $18,207 when Recology decided to offer free recycling.
When Recology began giving presentations and helping kids learn about trash reduction and recycling, the district's bill decreased to $13,642 a month.
At Crescent Elk, students used to generate enough trash at lunch for nine full-size trash bags every day, said AmeriCorps volunteer Josh Goodman, who has been at the middle school since September. Now, students are only throwing away one trash bag filled with garbage.
"Our waste has gone down by that much," Goodman said. "It's pretty awesome. We're really trying to see if we could recycle more."
Goodman and the students he works with have also started a composting program. The school keeps seven to eight compost bins, Goodman said, and the compost goes right back into Gillespie's garden.
"Everything that we compost turns into soil and goes into the garden beds out here," Goodman said. "And everything that we grow in the garden beds, if it grows well, we try and produce it for our salad bar to get fresher salads. The kids get stoked when you explain to them why we're composting."
But one can find more than a greenhouse, earth and plants in Gillespie's garden.
Two wind turbines tower over the raised beds, one capable of powering a house on a good day, Gillespie said. On the roof, solar panels also harvest electricity.
The energy from the smaller wind turbine is pumped into batteries. The energy from the solar panels and the larger wind turbine is pumped into Crescent Elk's power grid. On a sunny day, the energy from the solar panels is enough to run a classroom, he said.
"I teach (students) about what an electrical current is," Gillespie said. "I teach them about volts and amps and watts and their relationship."
Both Poole and Gillespie said they hope their work with Crescent City's youngsters will also get the grown-ups thinking about being more environmentally conscious.
In addition to showing students how to recycle, Poole and Recology have also organized art projects using recycled materials like newspaper and old milk cartons at the Del Norte County Library and at events like Smith River Days. Many adults are often interested in participating in the art projects themselves, she said, giving Poole a chance to talk to them about recycling.
"The more they recycle, the less trash they need to have," she said. "It's also getting education out there - that there are more products that can be recycled and just hoping that they're taking advantage of that."
Gillespie said as the cost decreases, more schools might be inclined to put solar panels on their roofs.
"Solar panels have been pretty expensive, about $5 per watt," Gillespie said. "Now you can get solar panels for as low as $2 per watt. That changes the game. Now people might think more seriously about doing a solar installation."
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com.