MANATEE COUNTY -- Students from Braden River Elementary are looking at ways to reduce carpet waste and recycle the ubiquitous household material instead. At McNeal Elementary, students want to reduce the number of milk cartons going to the county's landfill each year.
On Tuesday, 15 students got a firsthand look at what happens to the county's garbage during a visit to the landfill, led by Patrick Gallagher, the school district's energy and recycling specialist. Six students from Braden River Elementary and nine from McNeal Elementary toured the recycling and waste areas of the Lena Road landfill, as part of the schools' FIRST LEGO League projects.
The program encourages students to find solutions to real world projects using robotics, technology and other science-related fields. The project is done in three phrases where students identify the problem, research the issue and then create a solution, often building and incorporating robots into the solution.
At McNeal, students have already instituted a "No Thank You" tray where students can put any unopened milk cartons on a tray instead of the trash. Those milks can then be cycled back, and fewer cartons end up in the trash, fifth-grade student Mackenzie Walker said.
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"We're trying to figure out how do we keep a lot of the milk cartons from coming to landfills, like here," the 11-year-old said. Mackenzie said that the 48,000 students in the school district go through approximately 8 million milk cartons a year and that about 1 million of them are thrown away still full. She said the experience at the landfill was "really cool" and helped her picture what it's like when the milk cartons are thrown away.
Each day, 400 trucks come into the facility, and the county generates about 300,000 tons of trash a year. That's about 912 tons coming into the facility each of the 312 days it's open. Of the 300,000 tons in waste, the county recycles 51 percent of it and buries the other 49 percent.
TVs, computers, phones and other electronics are all collected, separated and then picked up by companies the county contracts with for recycling, Cari Walz, a household hazardous waste technician at the landfill, told the students.
"These things cannot willingly go into the landfill," Walz said.
Yard waste can be turned into mulch and resold. Tires are burned up, captured and turned into energy.
But other materials -- like carpet, which the Braden River students are studying -- pose a problem. Technology and companies do exist that can recycle carpet, but right now it's not a cost-effective method for Manatee County, so any carpet taken in gets buried in the landfill and decomposes over time. Something like a half-eaten hot dog or a newspaper takes about 50 years to decompose once buried in the landfill. Bigger items -- carpets, mattresses, even disposable diapers -- can sit buried in a landfill for 500 years before fully decomposing.
That big-ticket type of item is the change Braden River students are focusing on.
"We know carpet is used by almost everyone," said fourth-grade student Aidan Collins. "It's really important because we have thought about the harm that carpet in the landfill can do the environment, and we have tried to get the carpet to be able to be recycled."
The best solution, 10-year-old Aidan said, may be for counties and local governments to create partnerships with companies that can recycle the carpet. What the students have found, he said, is that carpet can be turned into energy if recycled.
"It can be incinerated and it can be turned into energy to power vehicles and make a better environment," Aidan said.
The problem right now with carpet is that there's no company nearby that makes setting up a carpet recycling contract cost-effective and efficient.
"It's just going to sit there more or less," said Billy Malfese, a recycling program coordinator in the county. "It is frustrating."
Eventually, the landfill in Manatee County will fill up, probably sometime in the next 40 to 50 years, Malfese told the students. The goal in the state of Florida is to recycle 75 percent of what comes into the landfill and only have to bury 25 percent of the trash.
Almost everything can be recycled, which is what makes the recycling programs really attractive.
"That's what's really cool thing about recycling, you're kind of only limited by your imagination," Malfese said. "It's kind of like magic a little bit. Something old can be turned into something new."
A visit to the landfill used to be a field trip every Manatee County fourth-grader took, Gallagher said. That ended because of budget cuts, but Gallagher said it's something he hopes can be brought back.
"This type of education is a payback to our taxpayers and our schools," he said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.