County Zero Waste Team: There Is No Planet B

Zero Waste


It’s summer. Kids are taking a break from the classroom, but many understand there’s no vacation from fixing climate change, specifically the climate change caused by plastic pollution and food waste.  These environmental leaders are communicating their concerns to their peers and parents. Their work is shifting the paradigm in Los Alamos. In this case, we have reverse wisdom—wisdom is not coming from elder’s content with the status quo. It’s the kids who see the necessity for change. 

Here are a few examples of the environmental stewardship work being done by some extraordinary Los Alamos students, their mentors, and their schools:

Los Alamos High School (LAHS) EcoClub leaders began in 2019 by meeting with Los Alamos Smiths Manager Isaac Chavez about their concerns with single-use plastic shopping bags. The good news? Corporate Kroger’s goal is already Zero Waste by 2025 for both food waste reduction and single-use plastic shopping bags. Kroger understands that waste costs money. The second-largest general retailer in the nation realized that their responsibility to the Earth also helps their bottom line. 

As for plastic bags, Corporate Kroger says, “The best partner is the customer as we ease the transition… to reusables. It will take customer education.” 

The LAHS Eco Club, realizing that it’s up to us to help bring the vision to Los Alamos, began designing a program to help educate shoppers about how easy it is to transition away from single-use plastic bags.  When they say “us,” they mean the whole community. You can help their efforts by eschewing plastic bags, and remembering to bring your own reusable bags to shop. 

The Los Alamos Middle School (LAMS) Green Earth Club (GEC): The eighth grade GEC’s have plans to make the LAMS cafeteria zero waste. They are working to: 

  1. Stop using single-use food trays, plates, and cutlery
  2. Initiate recycling
  3. Eliminate single-use bottled water 

Chartwells, the contractor for all the schools’ cafeterias, says “Yes, please! We want to go Green—we already serve the Chamisa Green Team cafeteria on reusable trays and cutlery.” But, for the Chamisa model to be implemented everywhere, a zero waste provision must be included in the schools-wide cafeteria contract. The initial investment to implement zero waste cafeterias for all schools is estimated to be $75,000, according to Chartwell’s Director Laurence Pena, for dishwashers and reusable serving items, this doesn’t include ongoing costs of staffing. However, with the cost savings of not having to purchase single use serving items at $50,000 per year, the initial investment could be repaid in 1.5 years.

Chamisa Elementary Green Team is a leader in the Green Schools movement. Led by Susan Hettinga, Chamisa Cheetahs revamped their entire lunch program and kicked waste to the curb by exchanging disposable Styrofoam trays and plastic single-use utensils for reusable equivalents and provides recycling and compost bins. Most importantly, dedicated student and teacher volunteers help sort lunch waste into recycle or compost. This effort has resulted in almost zero waste at the end of each lunch day. 

Other schools want this model. It requires champions, education, and leadership to sustain the program. In July, Ms. Hettinga is offering a Summer Institute on Recycling, creating zero waste lunches and other green practices. Contact Susan Hettinga if you are interested in participating ( 

Barranca Elementary School third grade teacher Angela Lopez invited the County’s Zero Waste Team to perform a food-waste audit. The class sorted 33 pounds of trash, the Barranca Bobcats found “a lot of corn, Styrofoam, mac and cheese, and unopen/uneaten snacks” The waste audit mobilized kids to start educating their peers and ask to establish a Green Team of their own. One key take away was that most of the waste could be avoided by eliminating single-use serving ware.

Mountain Elementary School had the original Green Team in Los Alamos, and staff is ready to reestablish a more extensive program. All three first-grade classrooms are learning about vermicomposting (using worms for composting). The Mountain Lions want to save the Earth.

Aspen and Piñon Elementary have teachers who will be attending Ms. Hettinga’s workshop. Students of each school have helped make the Summer Concert Series zero waste by picking up trash around Ashley Pond. Aspen Elementary school have also educated students about how to prepare zero waste lunches and to recycle right.

Green School programs require a huge commitment. They must become integrated as best practices, as part of the curriculum so that when a sponsor retires, or just tires out, the program will continue. Here’s where the community can help. Parents of students, parents of former students, former students, and just plain people who share the community and the Earth with students, can volunteer time.

As our LAPS student leaders tell us, kids are joining millions of students worldwide to tell governments “The time is now.”  Let our own children stand on our shoulders to reach for the world they want.