​Reducing Waste Education at SES

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

Paper or plastic?
This is a familiar question to all shopping for groceries in traditional supermarkets. It is also a question that Shelly MacLaren and the students at Sewanee Elementary School say you should respond to with, “Neither.”
Born out of MacLaren’s trip to purchase a candle and refusing the bag for her single item, “Tigers Don’t Leave Tracks!” is a community-wide initiative encouraging locals to refuse single-use plastics bags and instead opt for reusables. The goal of this project is to educate children in the community to be conscious about reducing waste.
MacLaren said this initiative was built upon one Robin Walker and the SES Parent Organization spearheaded last year in an effort to raise awareness about food waste. Walker said MacLaren ran with it—something she and the parent organization applaud.
“This started with a shopping trip. When I didn’t take a bag from that retailer, they gave a 10 cent donation to a charity. I thought that was a great idea and wondered how that could be put to work on a local basis. I thought this could be a really great way to bring together all the community members,” said MacLaren, Director and Curator of Academic Engagement at the University Art Gallery and Visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Art History.
According to National Geographic, “plastic bags now account for four out of every five bags handed out at the grocery store.” Worldwide, consumption is charted “somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags…each year.” Plastic bag usage is the cause of the litter stream outside of landfills.
The Environmental Protection Agency found that less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled because it costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one. Additionally, plastic bags photodegrade, meaning over time, they break down into small, more toxic petro-polymers. These petro-polymers contaminate waterways and soils, which gives the toxins a path to leeching into our bodies via food and water we consume.
“Many places have banned plastic bags outright, and at the municipal state or national level have banned them entirely. How do we make that change without legislation and as a positive choice? I started talking to people about that program that I had seen at a national retailer. We suggested a program that would direct money to the local elementary school. As I went around speaking to local businesses, I found they were able to participate and most excited about it,” said MacLaren.
Russell Green, University bookstore manager, was involved when the project first began. Green and the bookstore donated 175 reusable bags to SES to be used at the book fair.
“I wanted to take part because I believe you should take any opportunity you get to make a positive impact for your community. And, as someone who attended Sewanee Elementary School as a child, it’s especially important for me to be able to do something meaningful for the school and the students,” said Green.
“Local businesses were really supportive. Everyone is participating in a different way,” said MacLaren.
“We want to help the school and the environment, and I like the idea of young children getting this message,” said Katherine Alvarez Evans of the Lemon Fair. “It’s good for people who don’t usually think that way. Especially in here, we use a lot of packaging. We gift wrap things, and it makes a big difference when someone walks out without tissue paper and a sticker and a bag and all the cute things you associate with gift wrapping,” said Evans.
At the Lemon Fair, 10 cents is donated per bag not taken, and 20 cents is donated per reusable bag used that was bought from the shop.
Mooney’s Market and Emporium, Village Wine and Spirits and the Sewanee Market will donate 10 cents to SES for each shopping trip that uses reusable bags or doesn’t take a bag.
Piggly Wiggly is sponsoring a Litterless Lunch in October for the class with the most nominations. To nominate a class, take reusable bags to the store and write a nomination on the back of the receipt for a class at the school.
The Tigers first lunch audit was on Sept. 21, which MacLaren said she hopes will provide data that she and other local schools can use to further waste reduction efforts in the future.
“I would love to see other schools steal the program in terms of incentivizing reusable bag use and doing their own lunch audits. Instead of the single snack pack of goldfish, maybe you buy the bigger pack and put it in small Tupperware’s instead,” she said.
“This is really to do with a much bigger conversation about how we make change in our communities and at a local level. What really excited me about it was all those conversations were an opportunity to get to know people. We’re all sharing a similar goal of reducing waste, and that’s been a big motivator."