Mercer Island School District honored by King County Green Schools Program

The Mercer Island School District and each of its five schools have completed Level One of the King County Green Schools Program by putting into place waste reduction and recycling practices and policies. Two of the schools have moved forward with energy conservation practices that have earned them Level Two status.

Throughout the district, students are learning about conservation and are engaged in reducing waste, recycling, turning off lights in unoccupied rooms and other conservation practices. As a result, garbage volumes have been cut, and high percentages of paper, bottles, cans and food scraps are being recycled.

District garbage disposal costs were cut in half in 2009-10. In each school Styrofoam was eliminated and all plates, cups and bowls are either durable or compostable. Plastic utensils were discontinued and replaced by durable or compostable silverware. Each school lunchroom now collects food scraps and food soiled paper to be composted at Cedar Grove Composting.

The district regularly conducts preventive maintenance on its heating and ventilation equipment and has participated in City of Mercer Island energy and water audits.

“We are achieving personalized learning and student-centered education through the lens of environmental stewardship,” said Superintendent Gary Plano. “Preserving the environment for future generations is a powerful motivation to enact change. I am very proud of our students and staff.”

“The district’s Green Team and the Green Teams at each school have established a district-wide culture of conservation,” said Dale Alekel, program manager of the Green Schools Program. “Each school involved its whole school community – students, teachers, administrators, parents – in learning about the environment and expanding conservation practices. The district is committed to teaching students how their everyday choices make a difference.”

Mercer Island High School’s Green Team of 90 individuals – consisting of students, staff members and parents – led efforts to help the school become more sustainable. In January 2011 the school started a lunchroom recycling program to collect compostable materials as well as bottles and cans. The lunchroom now generates 60 percent less waste than it did in 2010, and the school’s overall recycling rate is 80 percent.

“Since I have been here, no initiative has generated as much enthusiasm from staff and students as the current sustainability efforts,” said John Harrison, principal of Mercer Island High School.

To reduce single-use plastic bottles, in March 2011 the school retrofitted a water fountain to make it possible to re-fill durable water bottles and track the number of bottles that it fills. In the first four days after it was installed, the fountain filled 1,000 bottles, thus avoiding use of 1,000 single-use plastic bottles. On Earth Day, April 22, the school plans to sell durable water bottles and to use raffle prizes to promote the water filling station.

“The King County Green Schools Program provided the support we needed in order to be successful,” said Jamie Cooke, teacher and Green Team adviser.

Islander Middle School was the first school in the district to participate in the Green Schools Program. With help from parents and staff, this spring the school began to collect food scraps and food soiled paper to be collected for composting. Students now monitor themselves and have been successful at keeping the lunchroom clean and their waste sorted properly. The middle school was the first in the district to eliminate Styrofoam trays and now uses durable lunch trays.

To complete Level Two, Island Park Elementary sustained its Level One waste reduction and recycling practices and created a student “energy patrol” that turns out lights in unoccupied rooms and checks to make sure electrical equipment such as DVD players are turned off after use. Rain barrels provided by the City of Mercer Island are used to collect rain to irrigate the school’s new Island learning garden which has areas for each grade level to plant and maintain. Teachers use the garden as a hands-on learning area, teaching concepts such as life cycles and composting. On April 14, Island Park Elementary received a King County Earth Hero at School award.

To complete Level Two, Lakeridge Elementary maintained its Level One practices, and used the Green Schools energy conservation checklist to assess current practices and make improvements. The school’s recently improved Learning Garden now has an outdoor project space for every classroom. In King County Green Team workshops, second graders learned about recycling, while third and fourth graders learned about environmental leadership and discussed how to keep their lunchroom recycling going strong. Fifth grades completed a unit on the salmon lifecycle and hydropower.

Since completing Level One at the end of 2010, West Mercer Elementary School has maintained a recycling rate of 63 percent. The school decreased lunchroom waste by 90 percent after starting to collect food scraps and food soiled paper to be composted. Another focus is reduction of paper use. Signs posted near copy machines and printers encourage users to make double-sided copies, use half-sheets, and only print when necessary. Each classroom has a paper reuse bin for paper that’s been used on one side. In October 2010 West Mercer participated in International Walk to School Day and posted “no idle” signs near the drop off/pick up area.

Read school success stories and the district’s 2009-10 annual report, which includes updates on its Green School activities and successes. See the press release to read about the three Earth Hero at School awards received on April 14 by Island Park Elementary, Nancy Weil, parent volunteer, and Jamie Cooke, teacher at Mercer Island High School.

The three-level Green Schools Program provides hands-on assistance, recycling containers and signs, and website tools. For more information, visit or contact Dale Alekel at

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