Photos on signs above the three bins help the students sort their trash.

“5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … ohhhhh!” With a swoosh, Alan Tan dunked a plastic bottle into the blue recycling bin, just before the imaginary buzzer. The Mission High School senior and a few of his friends found a way to make the trash-sorting process fun by turning it into a basketball game.“There you go,” Tan exclaimed as he watched a girl put a soiled paper tray in the correct bin: compost.

One week after schoolwide composting began at Mission High, one of the first in the nation to take part in the environmental practice, lunchroom garbage separation was in full swing.

“Regardless of what hoods you rep, we all live on mother earth,” said Jay Pugao, coordinator of the year-old Environmental Service Learning Initiative (ESLI) during the school assembly. Mission High is one of seven San Francisco participants.

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Composting is the newest of several Learning Initiative efforts to encourage community and civic responsibility among students. The program integrates environmental content in the students’ core classes such as English, Biology, U.S. History, and Art. “We’re providing a lens for environmental solutions,” Pugao said.

This comes on the heels of mandatory recycling and composting laws that were passed in the city in June, the first of their kind in the nation. With noncompliance fines possible after the Oct. 21 deadline to use all three bins, an increasing number of residents and businesses are jumping on board.

Back in the lunchroom, Rachel Pomerantz encouraged students to stop and recall everything they had learned before dumping all their waste into one bin. With an occasional, “Wait! Where does that go?,” the environmental education coordinator from SF Environment was on hand to help, but the crew of special education teens made her job easier.

On the first day, a few of Nikki Taylor’s severely impaired students were also there helping students decide where to place their refuse. Recycling, and now composting, has been “wonderful for them,” she said.  They learn to do their part for the environment and get to feel included.

There is currently a 15-lesson curriculum for every class and every grade, said Elsa Calvillo, the Mission High educator with the large task of creating the lesson plans.

With field trips to places such as Alemany Farm, Muir Woods and Mt. Tamalpais, the students see that the environment is closer than they think. Pugao and his team have also been working on integrating environmental conscientiousness into pop culture.

Last year’s prom, for example, featured vegetarian options and a bicycle-powered sound system. Also in the works is a compilation CD of environmentally conscious songs made for the students and by the students.

“I’ve learned that we need to protect the environment,” said junior Carlos Cordoba as he placed a potato chip bag in the correct bin: trash.

“We all need to think about the garbage we’re producing,” said Susan Boshoven, whose biology class started a compost and worm bin in the school’s parking-lot-turned-garden. Organic matter from the smallest of the compost bins will stay at the school to fertilize crops such as strawberries, corn, kale, tomatoes, green beans and lettuce.

Pomerantz said making sorting habitual would be a work in progress for the older kids, though a few of them were already pros.

With a simple “It’s easy,” senior Josue Henriquez showed his own sorting confidence. Confused as to where to put the trays? “If it’s hardcore dirty, it goes in the compost,” Barrientos said.

“The signs help me,” sophomore Gredi Fajardo said in Spanish. The color-coordinated posters above every receptacle are complete with pictures of food specific to the high school to make the sorting decisions easier, noted Pomerantz.

The city will pick up the large lime-green containers free of charge and take them to a compost facility in Vacaville where the material decays into a nutrient-rich fertilizer local farmers can use, noted Calvillo. This facility pays San Francisco about $480 per truckload, a source of funds Boshoven hopes the school will tap to offset the costs of sending waste not recycled or composted to landfills.

Perhaps the final piece of becoming a green school system is getting the Board of Education to mandate the use of recyclables and sustainable cafeteria practices in all schools, said Boshoven. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed, prepackaged items would cut down on waste. Using paper and cartons that are already made up of recycled materials would also help decrease the school’s carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, Pugao and the Learning Initiative will continue to work on showing the students how cool caring about the environment can be. “It’s not just a hippie thing,” he said.

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Born in the Sunshine State of Florida (but raised in Philly), Sade is happy to now be living and reporting in the sunniest neighborhood in San Francisco. When the high school education beat is not keeping her busy, she loves to frugally satisfy her inner food glutton (the Mission is a great place for that!) and sing (both in the shower and on stage).

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