In Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato si, subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” the Holy Father calls all people to an “ecological conversion,” whereby one’s encounter with Jesus Christ is reflected in one’s relationship with the Earth.
“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience,” the pope writes. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he asserts, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”
Erin Hensley, 35, parent leader of Shrine of St. Anne School’s student Green Team, took to heart Pope Francis’ words and reinstituted recycling at the Arvada school last year. Those efforts decreased the school’s landfill waste by 40 percent weekly and saved it $3,000 annually. The project also won a $1,000 Green Up Your School grant, which the Green Team is using this year to expand recycling in the classroom and in the lunchroom.
For Earth Day, the Green Team took their efforts into the wider community by stationing themselves at the Arvada Chick-fil-A on April 21 to urge customers to recycle their take-out containers.
To help foster environmental stewardship, Hensley shared tips with the Denver Catholic on how to start or expand one’s own sustainability efforts in schools and at home.
DC: How is recycling going at St. Anne’s this school year?
Hensley: It’s going great! One of the things we’re doing now in the lunchroom is to encourage students not to throw their food away. We learned that 16 percent of our waste (90-100 pounds weekly) is perfectly good, untouched, still packaged food items. If they haven’t touched their sandwich or fruit or treat, students can put it in a Giving Basket and kids who forget their lunch can help themselves to it. What’s left is refrigerated and at the end of the week donated to Arvada’s Blessing Box for the homeless.
The Giving Basket has a Scripture passage, John 6:12: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments so nothing is lost.’” Packaged food has become such a convenience and easy to come by that we’ve lost touch with how much is thrown out; years ago that would have been unheard of. This isn’t just common sense, but a Christian practice that needs to be embodied.
DC: Tell me about your reusable water bottle campaign.
Hensley: Of the 300 students at St. Anne’s only 10 percent typically bring their reusable water bottles to lunch, a lot of kids leave them at their desk and use singe-use containers at lunch. The Green Team had a contest and gave tickets to students who used their reusable bottles in the lunchroom. At the end of two weeks we had a drawing for prizes.
Making that small switch from disposable to reusable containers helps to both reduce our waste and to reuse. We also did away with little wax cups that were used for kids who didn’t have a drink container at lunch. Those cups would go into the trash. If kids forget to bring a drink, they can get one from the water fountain. It’s a “hard” lesson that isn’t too hard!
DC: What are some small steps families and schools can take to reduce, reuse and recycle?
Hensley: Parents can make sure kids have a way to bring leftovers home. I’m a big fan of Tupperware. If you use plastic sandwich bags, switch to reusable containers. Also, reuse disposable cutlery, which can’t be recycled. Limit disposable beverage containers to occasional—not daily or weekly—use. And when making such purchases, keep in mind that fruit juice pouches are not easily recyclable, but juice boxes are. Keep in mind that convenience comes at a cost: both financially and for our planet.
Everyone can read a book to kids about nature or conservation. The Earth Day 2018 message is: “End plastic pollution.” [One sobering fact from the World Economic Forum Report: if plastic production isn’t curbed, plastic pollution will outweigh fish pound for pound by 2050.] Remember to take reusable bags when you shop, and to reuse and recycle plastic bags and wrap. Also, refuse freebies and unwanted items from vendors. The stress balls, wristbands, pens and plastic junk are only destined for the dump!
Schools can install a Giving Basket. A teacher or volunteer can take photos of all the untouched food kids throwaway and get that info home to parents. Schools can install paper reuse bins to promote double-side paper use and to repurpose paper. We tied that in with an Earth Art contest, which will be held at Shrine of St. Anne Church. The parishioners will vote on the most visually appealing or informative entry.
We have fun with our projects! Kids are excited to be able to participate and feel like they are making a difference helping the Earth by saving trees and by keeping our planet clean and safe for all life.