Waukesha STEM families find success in Reduce Your Waste Stream Challenge

Tina Koch (from left), seventh-grade teacher at Waukesha STEM Academy's Saratoga Campus, Chris Kluck, STEM's Randall Campus principal, Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas and Stephanie Owens, a third-grade teacher at Randall, celebrate STEM Academy's success in Waukesha County's Reduce Your Waste Stream Challenge by receiving a $1,000 check.
Published on: 4/23/2013

Waukesha County Recycling Specialist Dustin Nolan compared Waukesha County's Reduce Your Waste Stream Challenge to the reality TV show "The Biggest Loser."

Instead of individuals trying to shed pounds from their bodies, families in this challenge were trying to lower their trash weight and instead of trying to gain muscle, families were trying to increase recycling.

But like the show, there were some struggles but plenty of success stories.

The challenge, run by the Waukesha County Recycling Program, saw 135 families from Waukesha's STEM Academy and Brookfield's Elementary School, the most participants in its four-year run.

Eighty-seven of those families came from the STEM Academy. Families at that school also took part in the challenge in 2011.

The challenge took place over a four-week period in February and March as families started by beginning with a baseline weight in pounds for recycling and trash.

At the end of each week, families weighed their trash and recycling totals and came up with an end total to see how that compared to their baseline weight.

While the 48 families in Brookfield combined to reduce their trash by 18 percent and increase their recycling by 33 percent, the families at Waukesha's STEM Academy reduced their trash by 22 percent and increased recycling by 3 percent. The combined trash reduction for the entire group of families was 20 percent and the recycling increase was 13 percent.

"The trash number is awesome and while the recycling number is not as high as we've seen with other challenges it's still a good amount," Nolan said.

Awarded for efforts

Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas was on hand to present each school with a $1,000 Waukesha County Green Schools grant award at a ceremony at the end of the challenge.

"I'm proud of the families who participated," Vrakas said. "The efforts these families made reflect the commitment residents in Waukesha County have for recycling and the environment, and also show how typical families can take easy steps to make an impact."

Nolan said using statistics from the challenge, the Waukesha County recycling program estimates that if the participating families maintained their pace of reducing and recycling for an entire year, they would throw away 30,000 less pounds of trash to the landfill and recycle an additional 13,000 pounds of material.

If all families in the 25 participating communities reduced and recycled at the same rate, it would translate to reducing 10,000 tons of trash and more than four tons more recyclables processed and sold as new products, Nolan said.

"The challenge has shown that no matter which area of the county participants are from, they are all able to reduce waste and increase recycling," said Rebecca Mattano, Waukesha County's solid waste supervisor. "The results are very encouraging and confirm that any household could achieve similar success with just a little effort simply by practicing (the) '3R-C:' reduce, reuse, recycle and compost."

Practical tips

Nolan said it's all about being mindful in your approach as well as "being creative."

This included households composting food scraps, making only the appropriate amount of food so more isn't thrown away, purchasing only items with recyclable packaging, recycling the appropriate items vs. throwing them in the trash, eating less fast food to eliminate the fast food cups and packages as well as using reusable diapers and towels (to eliminate paper towels).

"Food waste is the silent killer of the environment," Nolan said.

At the closing ceremony last month, Nolan said families were appreciative of the program.

"It opened many people's eyes and it's great because it's really hands-on," Nolan said. "We, at the county, run a lot of educational programs but this is the most interactive."

More taking the challenge

The county began the project as a neighborhood challenge in 2010 but has since extended it to schools. After having it at Waukesha STEM Academy in 2011, it branched out to families at Lake Country School in Hartland and at Silver Lake Intermediate School in Oconomowoc in 2012.

Nolan said involving the schools has worked out perfectly, especially at STEM, which emphasizes hands-on learning.

"We'd love to see the challenge expand and other schools in Waukesha County be part of this, but we'd also like to hand it off to others around the state as well as continue it here," Nolan said.

It appears others are taking notice as the City of Madison opened up the challenge to families and households this week.

But like "The Biggest Loser," Nolan said the challenge now is keeping the weight (trash) off and the muscle (recycling) up.

"Just because the challenge is over (here), we want this to be ongoing for the families," Nolan said.

To learn more about the challenge and to read about families' experiences, visit reduceyourwastestream.org.

By the Numbers


Grant money the STEM Academy received as part of the Waukesha County Green Schools award


Families from Waukesha STEM who participated in the challenge


Percentage in which families reduced their trash levels


Percentage in which families increased their recycling levels


Number of times Waukesha STEM has participated in the challenge

10,000 tons

Amount of trash reduced if all families in the 25 participating communities reduced and recycled at the same rate