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A tasty decision: Milk dispensers improve schools’ environmental efforts

The new milk dispenser in action at Butte Creek Elementary. Melissa Wagoner

By Melissa Wagoner

When a student throws away a partially-full milk carton, what has the biggest environmental impact? Surprisingly it isn’t the carton but rather the milk itself.

“From a climate change perspective, the DEQ has estimated that approximately five percent of a carton of milk’s impact is due to the carton itself,” Bailey Payne, a Waste Reduction Coordinator at Marion County Public Works – Environmental Services said. “The other 95 percent of a carton of  impact is the production, transportation and storage of the milk.”

This high environmental cost is one reason Payne is excited about the Silver Falls School District’s recent interest in implementing milk dispensers in as many schools as possible.

“[T]his fall I started working with Suanne Earl, the Food Service Director for the Silver Falls School District,” Payne said. “At the beginning of the school year we purchased two dispensers, cups, dishwasher racks and dollies to move them. With Suanne’s help we installed them in Scotts Mills School and Silverton Middle School.”

But the real impetus for a move toward dispensers in the district came two years ago, when Butte Creek Elementary School began working toward becoming an Oregon Green School – a move that required they document their waste reduction initiatives.

“Garron Lamoreau, a social studies teacher, he started a movement that we called the Green Team,” Butte Creek Elementary School Principal Kevin Palmer said.
“He installed compost bins by our little garden and started recycling.”

Lamoreau also placed a call to the Clackamas County Waste Reduction Coordinator asking what more could be done. He was told about a milk-carton reduction initiative that provided half of the funding the school needed to get the program started.

“It was a little bit of a learning curve, especially for our little students,” Palmer said. “But it’s gone well. And the word out there is that the milk tastes better.”

It’s not just the Butte Creek students who think that milk from a dispenser has a better flavor. Payne – who has been following studies across both the district and the state involving milk carton reduction – said students generally agree that dispensed milk is better.

“Kids like that the milk is colder and doesn’t have the ‘cardboard’ taste of the carton,” Payne explained. “As a result, they drink more milk which is good from a nutritional perspective.”

Because Butte Creek Elementary School lies outside of Marion County lines, it has not been included in Payne’s studies but both Silverton Middle School and Scotts Mills School have been pilot schools for the program.

“We’re doing pre and post milk dispenser installation audits,” Payne said. “Results are still preliminary but as an example, I’ve estimated that Silverton Middle School wasted approximately 250 gallons of milk per year before the dispensers were installed. Now it’s about 43 gallons which is an 83 percent decrease.”

Butte Creek too has seen a marked decline in milk-waste.

“There’s a big waste reduction because before they would take a couple sips and toss it,” Butte Creek School lunchroom worker Jenny Sandau said. “Before I could probably fill two buckets with milk and now it’s just a quarter.”

That reduction in dairy waste is really important, according to Payne, because each gallon of milk is equal to 0.7 gallons of gas in terms of its impact on the environment. And every gallon saved preserves 291.5 gallons of water, which would have been used in the production of that milk.

But reducing carton use is important too, which means the savings don’t stop there.

“Last school year Silverton Middle School used 32,543 milk cartons which works out to 25 cubic yards of cartons,” Payne estimated. “Most school districts have a six-yard container so this is about four dumpsters of waste they’ll avoid. Scotts Mills used about 17,000 cartons last school year which works out to 13.2 cubic yards of avoided waste.”

As encouraging as this preliminary data is, there are still a number of schools in the county who don’t have access to dispensers. Payne said his department hopes to remedy that by placing 20 additional dispensers in schools over the next two years.

“In December 2018 we were awarded a grant of $76,721 by the Department of Environmental Quality to install milk dispensers and provide reusable cups, trays and utensils,” Payne said. “Our department is also contributing funds for the project.”

Although much is currently being done at the state government and district level toward waste reduction in schools, Payne said the real benefit might actually be in the education these programs are providing to the students.

“[S]tudents play an important role,” he said. “They are often the ones in families that take out the garbage and recycling, so teaching them at school how to recycle right and why preventing food waste is important has ripple effects outside of the classroom.

“By teaching kids early, they’ll learn a conservation ethic that they’ll carry with them throughout their lives. K-12 students make up 18 percent of Marion County’s population so it’s also an important demographic to reach.”

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