November 5, 2015: Belmont’s milk pour-off program: everything worked

November 5, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Reading, writing and arithmetic are not the only skills taught in Belmont’s public schools today.  Wise waste disposal is yet another.  From its elementary schools through the Chenery Middle School, Belmont is entering a new year of its wildly successful milk “pour-off” program. The initiative encourages kids who do not finish their lunchtime milk to pour the excess into large “buckets” and to recycle their empty cartons before disposing of the rest of their lunchtime waste.

According to Mary Beth Calnan, Belmont’s recycling coordinator, one benefit of the pour-off program involves a reduction in the town’s waste disposal costs.  The liquid remaining in milk cartons is extraordinarily heavy, Calnan recently said.  Since Belmont pays for waste disposal based on weight, every pound that can be diverted from the waste disposal stream represents dollars of savings to the town’s budget.  In fact, Calnan points out, the pour-off system diverts not simply pounds, but tons on which Belmont need not pay disposal costs.  The Butler school alone diverts nearly three tons in poured-off milk each year.

The empty cartons can then be recycled providing significant additional environmental benefits.  Belmont’s Winn Brook school diverts about 34,000 milk cartons each year.  Since 85% of those cartons are made up of paper, by recycling the cartons, Winn Brook’s kids, alone, will save about 30 trees over the next five years.

The program also makes life easier on school staff, Calnan says.  Previously, when unused milk was thrown away with the trash, the bags would often leak, creating a “constant mess to keep cleaned up” at our schools.  Now the liquids go down the drain and not into plastic trash bags.

Belmont’s pour-off program began at the Butler elementary school where concerned parents, along with an enterprising custodian, figured out a system that would work in the crowded cafeteria. The pour-off program is now “old hat,” Calnan says, and is “embedded in the operation of all [five] schools.”

The goal of the program is more than to teach the kids that the process of pouring off unused liquid before recycling the container is the “right thing to do.”  “We don’t want the kids to [pour off and recycle] because they think about it as a good thing,” Calnan says. Rather “we want to teach it as a life-long habit, something you do automatically.” Some things you simply do, without thinking each time about whether you “should.”  Look both ways before crossing a street.  Buckle your seat belts.

Nationwide, school pour-off programs are supported by the Carton Council, the industry association of companies that make the small square “gabled” milk cartons. According to the Council, recycled carton paper fibers are a valuable resource for making new products. The discarded milk cartons from Belmont’s schools can end up as tissue paper and office paper, or even as material for wall board manufacturing. The outside layer on a milk carton that many people think of as wax is actually a thin layer of plastic that can also be recycled and reused in other materials.

There is much to admire about the Belmont pour-off program, well beyond the program’s positive fiscal and environmental impacts. A group of parents not only had a specific idea, but undertook the much harder job of translating that idea into an actionable proposal; those parents then worked even more to develop an implementation plan. A school janitor stepped beyond his typical day-to-day tasks to help make that plan happen. Administrators at other Belmont schools were willing to expand it to their schools when the program proved successful. The pour-off program, an instance where the entire process worked.

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