Environmental Sustainability at U-32

This article was written by Avery Ryan, a student in the U-32 Journalism class and Chronicle editor.


After the historic July flood and a disappointing snow season, Vermonters have been able to acknowledge the impacts of a warming planet. As a U-32 community, many people have also recognized these events, as well as what we can do to create a more environmentally sustainable place, both at the school and beyond.


Members of the Green Team, the U-32 environmental sustainability club, are especially concerned about the impacts of climate change. “This summer made it feel more relevant to a lot of people in Vermont, before it was an abstract idea, but now we had the flooding, we had the smoke from the wildfires,” said Mayla Landis-Marinello. She has spent this year in Pilot, the individual study program, learning about climate justice.


Green Team working during a recent callback. (Avery Ryan/U-32 Chronicle)


Leela McCann explained that she moved from California expecting that the threat of wildfires and other climate change-related disasters would go away. “After the flooding I was like, wow, this is not just something I can escape across the country. It’s affecting everywhere,” Leela said.


In Arizona, Izzy Parrish became more aware than ever of pollution when she went for a hike with her friend. “You could just see smog everywhere,” she said, “that’s when I actually realized how big of a problem it was…I lost hope for a week.”


As a club, Green Team hopes to create ways for U-32 to limit its carbon footprint. “I feel like [climate change] is very unfair, that it’s kind of looming over our futures. Now we have this problem. That could mean our adult life is in complete chaos,” said Ella Thomas. The Team discussed options such as having electric buses, an improved waste system, climate change focused education, and activism within the school. 


Green Team has been working on building new waste system tables. They hope to not only make them more aesthetic but efficient to use. As far as students using them effectively, Mayla said that, “the biggest piece of [the project] is getting people to actually care.” Many people end up dumping their entire tray into the trash can, by creating these tables the hope is to both reduce waste, but also educate people on how to recycle and compost correctly. By reducing waste going into the landfill, it not only cuts down on space in these spaces, but also cuts down on greenhouse gas emitted by the dump.


Lauren Melkonian, a special educator at U-32, observes the ineffectiveness of the current system. “The student population doesn’t care, they throw their garbage in whatever trash can is closest. And everything just gets mixed up,” she said.


Lauren Melkonian, a special educator at U-32, waters her plants. (Avery Ryan/U-32 Chronicle)

Proper climate change education in the curriculum would also encourage students to think about ways they could limit their own impact on the planet beyond the school’s waste system. “I was doing a climate justice presentation to middle schoolers and a kid asked, ‘Earth has normal cycles, is this just one of those cycles?’ I had to explain that it’s a crisis and [climate change] is worse than normal,” Mayla said, “we just need a lot more education.”


These solutions would be steps to making U-32 more environmentally sustainable. However, the reality of running a school does not make it easy to follow through with those plans. Environmentally friendly practices in schools are costly. The budget failed to pass this past town meeting day, making environmental sustainability a low priority. 


“They’re not looking at sustainability right now,” said Brian Fischer, U-32’s Director of Food Service, “That is not my priority right now. My priority is feeding the kids daily… a decent meal and having multiple choices.” He also explained that with staffing very low since the COVID-19 pandemic, it is impossible to focus on environmentally sustainable practices.


For example, the U-32 cafeteria uses disposable trays and silverware. They transitioned from the reusable ware during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, Brian had 7 staff members working for him and was serving about 180 lunches per day. Nowadays, he has 4 staff members and is serving 400 lunches per day. An unbelievable change in the kitchen.


Brian Fischer, Director of Food Service (Avery Ryan/U-32 Chronicle)

The change to the less environmentally friendly trays and silverware is due to the dishwasher. To wash the reusable containers it took three and a half minutes per rack. To complete this tedious task, the kitchen staff would be at school past three o’clock. “I don’t have the money for that, that’s not in my budget,” Brian said.


Before the pandemic, classrooms had compost buckets to promote environmental sustainability. That took a turn. The buckets would be left for months at a time, leaving a mess that was a burden for the kitchen staff to clean. “The kitchen is not the sanitation department. It [was] a biohazard straight up,” said Brian. Fortunately, the cafeteria has big compost buckets for food scraps during lunch time.


Despite these setbacks in a time when the climate crisis is on a lot of people’s minds, there is a lot we can do individually to limit our carbon footprint. NPR suggests things such as composting at home, carpooling, conserving water, increasing the biodiversity on your lawn, and generally limiting energy use add up in the long run. By doing these things, you can show that you care about this pressing issue.


Though each thing we do as individuals may feel too small to make change, every action counts. Mayla said,“We haven’t been doing our fair share to deal with the climate crisis.” There is a possibility to reverse this which counts.


Members of the Green Team (Avery Ryan/U-32 Chronicle)

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