Paul Ecke students led effort to get rid of single-use plastic bags

Paul Ecke Central switched to paper bags for its grab and go lunch program.

Thanks to a student-driven initiative, Paul Ecke Central Elementary School recently made the switch from single-use plastic to recyclable paper bags for their lunch program.

In April, the Encinitas Union School District returned to five days a week in school on a shortened schedule. As students go home at lunchtime, the district began offering grab-and-go lunches packed up in a plastic bag. Paul Ecke sixth graders were troubled by the sight of all the plastic bags at lunch and approached Principal Wes Sechrest about making a change.

The students’ green thinking wasn’t exactly a surprise.

One of EUSD’s core pillars of distinction is environmental stewardship. During a typical school year, students learn to be mindful —they use recyclable cardboard trays and the SCRAP Cart (Separate, Compost, Reduce And Protect) teaches students how to properly sort their lunchtime waste for composting, recycling and the landfill. They learn about litter prevention, composting and environmental advocacy through the SWPPP (Storm Water Pollution Prevention Program) Internship and they help maintain their school garden, which has its own worm composting station.

After hearing the students’ concerns, Sechrist saw it as a great design challenge—he asked them to research their proposal and present it to him for consideration, giving them the parameters of costs, how many lunches were served daily and how many weeks were left in the school year that ends June 18 (at the time just nine weeks were left).

Paul Ecke sixth graders make their pitch to switch to paper bags.

Teacher Brian McFadden gave the class time to work on their proposal. The students uncovered that 2,342 bags got used in a day by the district and only 2% got recycled, the rest end up in the landfill or the ocean.

“Plastic may be a lot cheaper but it is more dangerous and causes a lot of harm to our world,” the students reported. “About one million sea animals die from plastic pollution so even if one of these bags ended up in the ocean it could kill or harm a sea animal.”

In addition to presenting to the principal, the students also presented to EUSD Superintendent Andree Grey. Their creative and convincing presentation included slides, animation and even a song set to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” with the chorus replaced with a chant of “Plastic is forever.”

The paper bags were initially a higher-cost option but after the students’ presentation, the Child Nutrition Services team was able to find an economically sound option as well as more environmentally friendly one.

Sechrest surprised the students by making the swap to the paper bags at lunch one day—they were thrilled.

“The students really did feel empowered to make that change,” Sechrest said. “It showed them that we value their voices.”

A Paul Ecke sixth grader shows what the plastic bags looked like during lunchtime.