After standing on top of the mountains of trash at Midland landfill, the students in the Valley Lutheran High School Sustainability class realized that they must take action.

They returned to the classroom to learn about various waste streams, including those that exist around Valley Lutheran. The culminating project? Choose one and create a plan that would help mitigate it.

To begin, students interviewed a variety of staff members who shared about various areas of waste that exist. From unused paper copies to yard waste to doing a deep dive into the dumpsters, multiple options quickly surfaced. The one that struck students the most was the styrofoam and plastic trash coming out of the cafeteria. “The kitchen was short-staffed and so it was difficult to serve students and wash dishes. Single use items were the easy, convenient solution,” explained Mr. Cooper, teacher of the Sustainability class. “The three large trash cans in the cafeteria had to be emptied twice per lunch hour,” Dara Bukoffsky (VL ‘24) remarked, “that’s a lot of trash!”

“We chose the kitchen as our focus because it felt the most attainable,” said Rachel Piechotte (VL ‘23). Dara expanded, “and from our interview with Mr. Seidel, we could tell he was really passionate about the problem too.”

The class presented their findings and rationale to the student body through a chapel service about creation care and invited them to be a part of the solution by signing up to help in the dishroom during a portion of their lunch hour. With student volunteers manning the dishroom, the kitchen could transition back to reusable dishes and silverware, significantly reducing the daily waste.

“Students are more willing than I thought they might be,” Dara admitted, “It’s great to see people come together to help fix this problem.”

Frequent volunteer Travis Scharich (VL ‘23) shared his motivation for getting involved. “Why not? I have the time and it is something different to do. It keeps me busy and it’s rewarding knowing that I got it done in the end!”

Participating isn’t without extrinsic rewards as well. Volunteers receive a daily snack treat and points toward a school wide competition that includes a pizza party at the end of the year. The Sustainability class is grateful for grants from Thrivent Financial and WE Schools for covering the cost of these rewards.

In fact, this project received one of only 30 grants from WE Volunteer this year. The grant announcement stated, “We were so impressed by your students’ efforts to volunteer in the dish room and reduce solid waste, while serving your kitchen staff.”

And that’s exactly how Food Service Coordinator Karl Seidel feels. “We have an excellent group of students who volunteer a portion of their lunch period. This is a tremendous help to us working in the food service! With their help we have reduced the use of foam and plastics and are now able to use mostly all reusable cutlery and dishes, [which] is a definite cost savings to the environment and to VLHS.”

“We believe that God calls us to care for His world and serve each other, and this project accomplishes both.” Mr. Cooper said. So far, around 20% of the student body has volunteered in the dish room at least once. “There are certainly regulars, who go above and beyond to help. We would love to see more students give it a try as well. It only takes about 15 minutes, but the service it provides to our kitchen staff, and the impact it has to reduce our solid waste is huge. We continue to encourage new students to sign up, not out of guilt or compulsion, but as a tangible act of worship to God who has given us so much.”