Hopkins School Sustainability Project

Making Our School's Lunch Packaging More Sustainable Through Research and Data Collection

Photo of Amy Zhang
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Please confirm you meet the following criteria

  • We have submitted the supplemental form linked in the description above
  • We are aged between 14 - 20 as of February 11, 2021
  • We live in the United States or its territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa)
  • We are not employed by, or directly related (parents or siblings) to a current General Motors (GM) or Ashoka employee
  • We have been working on this project for at least three months
  • We consent to Ashoka and/or GM featuring our work on their website, social media, and in other materials regarding this Challenge using the information in our application
  • We confirm we have the rights to use and share any content uploaded on this entry form

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Date You Started Your Project


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Due to the pandemic, schools are enforcing social distancing and hygienic measures to lessen the spread of Covid-19. At our school, lunches are served packaged in plastic or styrofoam in order to sterilize the handling of food. However, these products produce a lot of waste and are hazardous to the environment. They can reverse the recent progress the environment has made in the pandemic from decreased human activity.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We hope to reduce the waste produced by the school cafeteria, as well as to switch the packaging to containers which are compostable and biodegradable. By replacing the styrofoam containers with more sustainable options and encouraging the students to bring utensils which are reusable, we believe this is achievable. We have found several replacements for the styrofoam packaging, including plant-based, mycelium, and cornstarch options. We plan to determine a feasible solution with information about cost, regulations, and availability gathered from the school administration, dining service, and students. Then, we will approach the school administration with a solution and work to put it into reality. In addition to changing the type of packaging used, we plan to encourage students to bring their own utensils to school by sending out all-school emails and other student-led initiatives. By following Covid safety guidelines and maintaining proper social distancing, our plan can both keep students safe at school while being more beneficial for the environment.

3. Please tell us how you are using science, technology, engineering or math to address your environmental challenge.

We are utilizing science, technology, engineering or math to drive our plan by measuring the price and effectiveness of each of our ideas for solutions and using these measurements to determine which solution is most effective. We first compared the price-points that each type of compostable packaging will cost against what we currently spend on packaging to calculate the cost of our solution. Then, we determine which type of packaging is most effective for our situation. We are using mathematical analysis to measure the effectiveness of our solution by collecting data from our school community through surveys. Next, we compare all of our ideas for solutions against each other to find the most effective solution. While we aim to get the most accurate results from our surveys, we recognize that surveys aren’t perfect measurements of change and not everyone will realistically fill out our surveys. To tackle this problem, we are calculating a percentage of error of our measurements based on the percentage of assumptions we make to fill in the gaps of our survey data.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

As we sit outside everyday to eat lunch, we see trucks pull into our school’s parking lot full to the brim of garbage. Seeing that the waste from a single meal fills a truck bed was our wake-up call, making us feel guilty, frustrated and inspired to try to make change, to be Changemakers. That, coincidentally, happens to be the name of this competition.

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

We researched sustainable packaging and found realistic and effective options. We approximated the cost of switching to sustainable packaging and brainstormed ways of raising money to cover that cost. We gathered data on how much waste we produce. We raised awareness at our school about the issue posed by plastic through school-wide surveys highlighting the extremity of our school’s plastic waste situation We have partnered with our school's sustainability committee.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Our project was inspired by our school, and we feel that there is a personal stake in this project and are motivated to create change. Covid has changed the rules of the game, and we have been forced to adapt with it. Our measures are preventative, while many school projects involve picking up waste that is already in the environment. It is also entirely youth-based. We, students, found the competition, the issue, the and the solution, and are now working to implement it. We are led by the heads of the SWENext chapter at our school and the chapter’s members. This is coming from us, for us.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made.

We have emailed the head of our school's sustainability committee in order to assess our current situation and the effectiveness of our plan. Additionally, we have also contacted the head of our school's dining service to change to more eco-friendly packaging without upcharging school tuition. We hope to also establish relations with our nearby composting plant to see if we could expand our plans to create a composting site at our school where our idea of compostable packaging can be beneficially discarded. Lastly, we have already created a survey of questions asking faculty and students about their attendance on our school campus and their usage of the plastic containers and utensils, which we hope to send out to the whole school soon.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

To extend the reach and effectiveness of our project, we can create plans to reduce the amount of waste we produce. Our current plan focuses on using compostable alternatives to plastic containers. However, we will create a greater impact if we design a solution to reduce the amount of containers that we use in the first place. In the future, we can tackle the challenge of reducing the need for disposable containers while being COVID-safe by first researching the contagiousness of COVID to determine our safety constraints. Next, we can experiment with solutions like changing the assembly line in our school’s survey to reduce the number of individually-packaged items by pairing foods together while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

So far, we have been focused primarily on raising awareness about the problem, gathering information, and generating ideas for solutions. We are sending out all-school emails to survey students about the waste they produce and informing them on the issue, as well as encouraging students to bring their own reusable cutlery. We are working with the appropriate adults, voicing our concerns and gaining supporters to help us put our idea into action.

11. How would you partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

We are currently working in liaison with the school Sustainability Committee to drive impact, encourage feedback, and increase participation throughout the school. We are looking to do a partnership with a nearby composting plant, Blue Earth Composting, which not only will serve as a bio-friendly processing plant for the waste created by the biodegradable containers, but also create energy which can be used through the production of biofuel.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

For other schools who haven’t heard of our project, we hope to inspire them to create their own clubs centered around sustainability and use STEM creatively to make their schools greener. For example, they can build models representing an ideal compost pile their school could have and collect data on how much carbon emissions they would save from having one. Lastly, we hope to encourage other schools that are in-person this year to follow our model and reduce plastic waste from their lunches.

14. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you? You’ll be able to select only one option.

  • Project Plan & Strategy

Are you employed, or directly related (grand-parents, parents, sibling) to a GM or Ashoka employee?

  • No

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Search engine
  • Recommended by others

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1 comment

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Photo of Kalpana Yanamadala

It's so nice to see young change makers , trying to solve problems around them and create a positive environmental impact . Also please consider ideas for financial sustainability of the project.