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Today's lesson, Dumpster diving: Trash sorting gives students insight into sustainable living

Eighth-grader Abi Beam, center, finds a plastic spoon in the trash that could have been recycled, while classmates Cassidy Stokes, left, and Brittni Adams, right, sort through other bags of school garbage for recyclable goods on Wednesday afternoon. The garbage sorting was part of an extracurricular waste audit of the middle school in which students from the school and Bemidji State University participated in. Anne Williams | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- Caleb Countryman grinned from ear to ear Wednesday afternoon as he held up a bright blue plastic canteen a classmate found minutes earlier in the trash. It looked brand new.

Had it not been found, it likely would have ended up in the landfill, but the eighth-grader from Bemidji Middle School assured his peers he would find a use for it.

Several middle school students, their teachers and a handful of Bemidji State University students spent an hour digging through dozens of bags of trash that had been collected from the school Wednesday as part of a waste audit being conducted by Minnesota Green Corps member Brett Cease.

The waste audit was intended to find out how much and what kinds of waste the school generates. In order to find this out, the group sorted through the trash, separated items found in the trash that could be recycled, and recorded the weight of the different types of waste and recyclables.

Items were sorted into various categories of paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminum, glass, paper towels, newspaper, food scraps, plastic bags and packaging, unused foods and garbage.

Despite the pungent smell that radiated near the west end of the school building that afternoon, the students appeared to be having fun rummaging through the trash. Some students were amazed at how much food waste they found.

As a measure of protection, each student wore gloves.

"This will give school officials a better picture of how they are doing with their recycling efforts," Cease said.

As a Minnesota Green Corps member, Cease works out of BSU's Sustainability Office and has been working to educate the university campus and the community of Bemidji on ways to reduce waste and conserve water and energy.

Based on the results of the middle school's waste audit, a free service Cease is providing that could take up to two weeks to officially complete, Cease said he could make recommendations to school officials on setting short-term and long-term goals to reduce waste or give suggestions on how to better promote recycling, if needed.

Doug Cronemiller, lead custodian at the middle school, said he feels confident the results of the waste audit will show that middle school students and staff are doing a good job of recycling.

He is proud of how far the school has come in the last six years with its recycling efforts.

"When I came here, so much of the waste went into the Dumpsters," Cronemiller said. "The custodians weren't doing very much recycling. It's very different today. It will be interesting to see whatever the kids find out there. Before this recycling program was put in place, it would have been unbelievable."

As students sorted through garbage outside, Cronemiller stepped inside the building where multiple recycle bins filled with cardboard, paper, tin, aluminum and plastic sat.

Once a week, the bins are picked up by a distributor and then transported to a recycling center. Some bins become so full of recyclables it is difficult to move them, he said.

Still, not many people know the school district recycles, said Paul Rafferty, facilities and maintenance coordinator for the Bemidji School District.

"We've been recycling since the early 1990s because we were mandated by the state to do so," he said. "It was difficult at first, but now we've really made the process easier, so people recycle on a regular basis, and now it's less expensive to discard recycled waste."

Knowing how much waste is being produced in a day and how many recyclables are being thrown in the trash has Rafferty curious.

"I'm hoping this will allow us to gauge whether students, teachers and staff are using the program effectively," he said. "It will be interesting to see what comes out of the report."

Middle school teacher Kurt Long Voelkner, who helped sort through trash Wednesday with students, said the waste audit will give school officials a baseline from which to set goals.

"Hopefully they'll take this home and say, 'Mom and dad, don't throw this away, we can recycle this,'" Long Voelkner said. "These guys will be taking care of us and the planet when we get older and I think it's important for them to understand we need to be stewards of this planet for future generations."

Eighth-grader Cody Hedstrom, who helped with weighing each bag of waste and recyclables, said he hopes to sort through the trash at his home.

"My dad's going to think I'm weird for doing it, but I think it will help a lot," he said.


Details on where to take recyclables in Beltrami County can be found at

Additional information on waste management and recycling is available on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's website,