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By Brenda Sexton-The Courier-Herald

Black Diamond Elementary School has added a few more Rs to the traditional reading, writing and ‘rithmetic - reduce, recycle, reuse and rethink.

“There was a lot of waste,” custodian Wendy Leishman said. “We needed a better system.”

That system began in 2005 when Leishman and teachers Linda Reiter and Sara Davis hooked up with King County's Waste Reduction and Recycling Assistance Program.

That same year, Black Diamond Elementary earned an Earth Heroes award, which celebrates King County students, teachers, staff and volunteers who implement projects at their school or beyond to protect the environment. An audit at that time rated the school's program outstanding.

“It helped out with our garbage,” Leishman said of the program. “Our garbage would get so full. We were well on our way to needing a second garbage Dumpster, now we have an overflowing recycle bin and half-empty garbage.”

King County offers assistance to schools and school districts who want to recycle by initiating programs, adding materials to existing programs, purchasing containers and signs and educating students and staff about what materials can be recycled.

According to Dale Alekel, program manager for the School Recycling and Waste Reduction Assistance Program, of the 18 school districts in King County, nine have participated, are participating or are going to participate in 2008. She said more than 200 public and private schools have participated.

Enumclaw High's Transition Program also participates in King County's program.

“The program has been in demand and is very popular,” Alekel said.

Program members meet with a school's leader and perform a waste walk through to estimate the school or district's recycling rate. Later, they return with recommendations and waste-reduction strategies. Alekel said the county provides hands-on help, signage, collection bins and education, which can include a display of products made from recycled materials.

“The goal is not just to teach the students reading, writing and to do math,” Davis said. “But to be good citizens, too.”

With three years behind them, recycling is a natural process for Black Diamond students.

“It saves the trees. It saves the earth,” said fifth-grade student MacKenzie Bull, who's part of the school's “Green Team.” “You can reuse them. It helps the community.”

Reiter's classroom of fourth- and fifth-grade students go out daily and collect what one student called a “gynormous” amount of recycling from each classroom.

Alekel said students and staff can also work on waste-reduction strategies like limiting junk mail and unnecessary or excessive newspaper subscriptions.

Second-grade student Shaylin Maki said her family has started recycling at home now.

“I think it's great,” Principal Randy Stocker said. “If kids can start understanding this stuff now ultimately it helps them as they move into adulthood.”

Leishman said the process has been an eye-opener.

On any given day, Black Diamond students fill two 33-gallon cans of recycling. Breakfast alone can generate 120 milk or juice cartons a day, Leishman said. Lunch can be between 150 and 160 or more.

Recycling cartons was a challenge, but Leishman said they worked with their recycling company, which set the school up with a collection container for unused liquids.

Leishman and the team became problem solvers. When it started the program, the group collected the paper breakfast bags. They discovered 700 bags were being thrown away. Now, they serve breakfast on reusable trays.

Leishman moved on to the school's work room, where she started collecting the tossed sheets of paper and making them into note pads.

“It gives the kids an incentive to start to think about what we're wasting,” Leishman said.

Davis' class reuses much of its paper before it finally hits the recycle bin.

“Even if you don't care about the earth, you care about saving money - all that garbage out day after day,” Davis said.

Alekel said schools and district's can see savings. As district's recycling bins fill up, less garbage service is required. Sometimes there's a trade out for more recycling, but most times that is not the case.

“That's been a tremendous savings for some districts,” she said.

She said the Issaquah and Lake Washington school districts are two that have seen substantial savings. On its Web site, King County notes Tolt Middle School in Carnation saved $3,000 in one school year by adding plastic bottles to its recycling program.

Black Diamond recyclers aren't done yet. They continue to work on finding an economical and eco-friendly replacement for the Styrofoam bowls and plastic silverware that get tossed.

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com.

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