GWAC article for Lexington Minuteman 9/14/08

The Invasion of the WasteWatchers

Sandra Mayo shares the 18th century British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke’s tenet that “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” Besides being the mother of two sons and the principal of a Jewish Sunday School in Cambridge, Sandra is also spearheading a movement that began at Bridge School and is now spreading to other Lexington schools: tackling the monstrous waste stream that has become a modus operandi, not only in Lexington but in schools throughout the country. This national throwaway model also serves as an unfortunate lesson for our children. While from a global perspective this bee in Sandra’s bonnet may seem inconsequential, her efforts have added up to quite a lot of something, and that something could ultimately light the way for other communities.

Mayo’s magnificent obsession was sparked while walking her sons to Bridge School—a mile from her home—each and every school day. They couldn’t help but notice the piles of “trash” sitting in front of homes along the route on trash day. Mayo was appalled. “I grew up in Argentina, where we reused and repaired things. We reused all kinds of things for our arts and crafts. My mother-in-law always had plastic bags hanging around the kitchen: she would wash them, hang them to dry, and reuse them. I used to think she was cheap, now I do the same thing myself.”

Mayo soon realized that her children’s own school was tossing an amazing amount of waste each day, primarily from the cafeteria—the hub of waste generation in most schools. She knew what she had to do. It began with looking around at the school and its functions, lunchtime in particular, to see where the environment could be better served. One day she drained and lugged a day’s worth of milk cartons home so they could be picked up for recycling.

Her partner in this waste-watching effort and her guide through the mores of the system was Bridge School counselor Lucia Gates. They quickly noted that alternate lunches purchased by the students came in plastic boxes with additional packaging for the food and were served on styrofoam trays, all of which was ultimately tossed out. They also learned that if kids don’t like their lunch, whether bought or from home, they toss it all out.

Change in food service practices is not necessarily easy; Mayo has had “conversations” with both the food service company and the school administration in an effort to convince them that alternatives to throwaway, such as recycling, are worthwhile, both ethically and economically. So far, a bin has been placed in the cafeteria for recycling water bottles. (Ideally, it would be better not to even use bottled water.) Mayo’s growing group of waste-watching moms has also found a company that carries biodegradable trays, which, along with food waste, could be composted, thereby reducing the town trash disposal bill.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen. This fall, Bridge School will introduce a pilot program to recycle clean styrofoam trays and the plastic boxes. The Lexington Department of Public Works (DPW) will place a bin in the cafeteria to collect not only bottles but also clean styrofoam trays and the plastic boxes. Also, there is now a recycling bin in the teachers’ room, and the Bridge School PTA is programming green fundraising activities. “The custodians at Bridge are key people in making all of this happen since they are the ones who carry those extra bins out,” notes Mayo.

“The kids are catching on slowly,” says Mayo, “we just need to show them.” During Earth Day week in April 2008, Mayo’s group organized a three-day event at lunchtime at the school cafeteria, where the kids sorted plastic, paper, styrofoam trays, compostables, and recyclables. “We weighed the trash each day and learned how much we trash we produce in a single lunch [10 pounds of bread!]. We learned that the prepackaged foods served at lunch produce most of the waste. Also, a lot of food was wasted because if a student wanted an apple he/she would get the “apple package,” which also includes cheese, pretzel, and a yogurt. The whole event was a major educational experience for the kids.

Mayo’s group, which is now tentatively called WasteWatchers, is making a difference. They have been writing columns called “Eco-Tips” for the Bridge School newspaper. Mayo has recruited a group of moms representing each of the Lexington schools. “I want to mobilize people to be aware that we can make a difference; that it is in our hands,” says Mayo. “We need to be role models. If we are given the tools, people are willing to change their behavior.” This Back-to-School Night at Bridge School will be a “Zero-Waste Event.” Pizza will be served, and the goal for this event, with the help of the DPW, will be to compost, reuse, or recycle everything.

Brought to you by Lexington Global Warming Action Coalition. Contact us at To find out more about the WasteWatchers, contact Sandra at