The Waste Game: Getting Kids to Play Along

Written by Andi Dierich 

Just about every child in the Chicagoland Region has visited The Field Museum at some point in their academic life. The classic field trip to this natural history museum is filled with amazing sights of dinosaurs, gems, mummies and other ridiculously cool "things." After an exciting morning excursion, kids will sit down to eat. Slowly they will finish and pack discarded food and wrappers back into their bag. That bag will then make the journey to the blue and gray bins, recycling and waste bins to be exact. The children will go back to exploring the museum but our story remains in the cafeteria where big changes are now occurring even as this story is written!  

The History 

Delta Institute, a non-profit that builds both a resilient environment and economy through sustainable solutions, has been working with the Field Museum for the last 4 years. In 2013, The Field Museum underwent several changes by introducing two new restaurants, the Field Bistro and the Explorer Café, along with working towards LEED certification with the assistance of Delta Institute. As part of the LEED certification Delta Institute analyzed ways to reduce waste. Large generators such as food preparation and service were an easy way to tackle waste diversion. Changes such as weighing waste leaving the premises, and employing back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house recycling and composting programs were further assisted by moving to compostable food containers and flatware. This significantly increased the overall recycling stream from 10-15% to 40-50%! With the success of reducing waste through large generators, the Field Museum sought Delta Institute’s help with their smaller generators. One of those being the cafeteria for school and other groups, the Siragusa Center.  

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The Problem

The Siragusa Center is a cafeteria area where kids bring their food in to eat, unlike the restaurants, this area is not managed by the food service provider. Waste in this area is harder to define and control due to the unregulated nature of what is brought in to eat. Rather than prescribe a solution for the Siragusa Center, by just adding a compost bin for example, Delta’s project team decided to take a closer look at waste stream, people, and behaviors that occur within the Siragusa Center. Initial observations included: 

  • Color-coded bins without further signage. A gray trash bin and a blue recycling bin.  
  • Users of the Center are school-age children from kindergarten all the way up to high school.  
  • The total interaction time with the Center was typically 30 minutes.  
  • Generally adults or chaperones assisted with waste determination.  
  • Students were frequently prompted to throw their materials into the trash. 
  • Nearly all materials went back into the original bag the food was packed in and tossed as a single unit.  

These initial observations highlighted the lack of communication and the confusion that resulted around the original waste set-up at the Center. In the baseline waste audit it was determined that only 14% of materials were being diverted from the waste bin, but the potential with the addition of compost bins was 70%. Lunch packaging items that groups appeared most confused about whether to recycle, compost or landfill included: plastics, plastic baggies, food containers with mixed components, and unopened or uneaten food.  

Working towards a Solution

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From these initial observations, the project team developed six different options. These options were implemented individually and then evaluated for their effectiveness and design with the intent to implement the most successful treatment. The graphic below illustrates the various treatments that were applied with Treatment 1, the addition of a compost bin to the Center. This compost bin was color-coded similar to the waste and recycling but not specifically identified with extensive signage or other detail. Treatment 1 was created as the baseline for comparison to the other treatments, and Treatment 6 was the integration of all treatments together.

After each treatment was implemented the project team observed the behaviors of the group and completed a waste audit to analyze and quantify the amount of waste diverted. Although all treatments realized a greater waste diversion from the initial Treatment 1, where only 7% of material was diverted with a potential of 69% to be diverted, and only two individual treatments really stood out. The recommendation was thus implementing both of these strategies together to have maximum impact.  

What Worked

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Treatments 2 and 5 were the most successful strategies to increase the recycling and composting. Treatment 2 involved handing a flyer out to adults that entered with students at the Center entrance. Although the project team did notice several adults disregard the communication flyer, they also noticed that there tended to be at least one adult with each group that prompted the kids to sort, and throw their leftover items into the appropriate bin. This resulted in a 30% diversion rate. Although usage issues still existed surrounding the bins, this produced significantly more waste reduction then just the color-coded bins alone.  The second highest diversion rate in an individual treatment was Treatment 5, which included signage and unique bin tops. This treatment realized a 22% waste diversion. The final treatment, Treatment 6, combined all strategies and had the greatest success of diverting 43% of materials. What was even more impressive was that the compost bin had a 98.6% pure stream!

Conclusions

  • Surprise, children in school settings actually follow direction from adults! We may think this to be a false statement, but when group leaders assisted and provided direction, children were more successful at recycling and composting.  
    • Lesson learned: utilize adults in school group settings! 
  • Signage and labeling are critical. There are several groups dedicated to creating a uniform look for recycling, waste and composting. Go with the flow and utilize the predominant color-coding scheme for recycling (blue) and composting (green), but realize some of the pre-made signage will not fit your facility or the typical consumption habits in the space. Be sure to tailor signage to what is most common in the space. 
    • Lesson learned: Signage isn’t one-size fits all but having visible simple designs with relatable items is key! 
  • Don’t depend on just one method to divert waste. Using combined methods truly makes a difference in the waste diverted and the quality of the separate streams.  
    • Lesson learned: Combine strategies for a better-rounded approach.  

Waste Game VIPs

  • Carter O'Brien, Sustainability Manager, Field Museum 
  • Kevin Dick, Director of Strategic Priorities, Delta Institute 
  • *Colleen McGinnis, Technical Associate, Delta Institute 
  • *Martin Brown, Technical Associate, Delta Institute 

* A special thank you to Martin Brown from the Project Team who provided details and information for this blog post and Colleen McGinnis for the graphics.