St. Pascal School captures $100,000 in recycling contest

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, June 5, 2011

As it turns out, you can take bottles and cans to the bank.

St. Pascal School, 6143 W. Irving Park Road, is living proof.

The alma mater of Cardinal George, St. Pascal won the Dream Machine Recycling Rally, a contest sponsored by PepsiCo, Waste Management and Keep America Beautiful. For its recycling efforts, St. Pascal received $100,000 from contest sponsors.

St. Pascal easily outdistanced 300 competing schools from around the nation. The 155-student Northwest Side elementary school collected an average of 2,286 containers per student, while runner-up James E. Plew Elementary in Niceville, Fla., amassed a total of 1,305 containers per student.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d win, but we turned out to be the little engine that could and did,” said Denise Landers, who is in her 10th year as St. Pascal School principal.

School-wide effort

The school applied for the Dream Machine contest last September and received official notice of its acceptance in November. Upon hearing the news, students began collecting bottles and cans.

The entire effort was a case study in the power of word-ofmouth advertising. The lone public announcements of the initiative were a mention in the school newsletter distributed to parents and a message in the parish bulletin. From there, individual voices and action took over, uniting the school, parish and community in one clear cause.

Though the school has had an established recycling program for years, the Dream Machine contest intensified those efforts. An unused science classroom became the “Landfill Room,” often blanketed floor to ceiling with garbage bags of recycled content. On Sundays, the school lobby would fill with bags of recycled goods donated by parishioners and community members.

“This was a real community venture,” said school office manager Ginny Quinones, the school’s primary point person with the contest. “I was simply astounded by the number of students bringing in materials on a daily basis, and then the parishioners and community responded. We had so much that Waste Management had to start coming twice a day [for collection].”

Continued to the end

Though St. Pascal captured the top spot on Feb. 7, only further distancing itself from the competition in subsequent weeks, the school’s motivated collection efforts continued until the contest’s 11 p.m. deadline on April 30.

“We had a champagne toast when the deadline rolled around,” Landers said, “but we still thought it safe to sit tight until the official word came.”

Two days later, St. Pascal received confirmation of the top honors it had long expected. A cool $100,000 was theirs.

“I could say thanks over and over for months, but it wouldn’t be enough,” Landers said.

The $100,000 prize can only be used for green school improvements approved by contest sponsors. While plans have not been finalized, St. Pascal officials hope to use the funds on a new computer lab outfitted with energy efficient computers and laser printers. Thereafter, the school is looking into flatscreen televisions with USB ports for the classrooms and solar panels for the roof.

“But the computer lab is the number one priority,” Landers said.

With plans to compete again in the 2011-2012 school year, Landers also plans to put recycling bins throughout the school.

She said the entire effort has provided the opportunity to teach students about the environment and the importance of putting talk into action. In fact, as great as winning the $100,000 prize was, school staff said it was just as valuable to show students the power of collective action.

“No one thought we could win this, but we did; that’s a real great lesson for our students,” said Quinones, a parent of three St. Pascal alums.

The Dream Machine Recycling Rally was sparked, in large part, by PepsiCo’s goal of increasing the U.S. beverage container recycling rate from 34 percent to 50 percent by 2018. Leaning on the enthusiasm of school communities, contest sponsors set the goal of collecting 22 million pounds of recycled material by June 2011. During the rally, students were encouraged to collect non-alcoholic beverage containers.

With the contest now complete, St. Pascal is re-adjusting to a life that does not include scanning every recycled bottle and can that enters the school’s doors.

“To be honest,” Quinones admitted, “I kind of miss the mess.”