BUCKFIELD — No one wants to be a carbon sasquatch, or at least that’s the message the Buckfield Bots want to get across in their quest to get Styrofoam trays removed from their lunchrooms and replaced with something more health- and eco-friendly.
The campaign stemmed from the Buckfield chapter of First Lego League’s take on this year’s competition theme, Trash Trek. Little did this small group of students know that their research efforts would launch them and their project further than they anticipated, as they were recently invited and approved to attend the First Lego League Open Invitational Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., in May.
The Buckfield Bots are comprised of eight students and advisor Linda Andrews. Members include sixth-graders Liam McAllister, Jamie Richardson and Hadley Blodgett, seventh-graders Shyloe Morgan, Siana Jacobs and Maxwell White and eighth-graders Cheyanne Goroshin and Jessica Doucette. The team had to create and program a robot out of Legos, which needed to complete a number of missions during competitions. They also conducted research on their project for a fact-filled presentation that is coupled with the robot portion of the challenge.
They began their months-long project in September 2015 by reading chapters from the book, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” team members said.
“It taught us … how big of a problem garbage was,” Maxwell said during a recent morning at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School. “I had always thought I put out some trash. … I take it to the dump and it’s all taken care of. But when we started reading the book, we realized this has been a problem for thousands of years and it will continue being a problem until something is solved.”
Team members recounted their difficulty in finding an original project to work on.
“All of our ideas came crashing down because everybody tried them already,” Cheyanne said. “So we tried to look locally to see what was going on in our school that we can help with or improve and we looked at our lunch trays.”
In examining their Styrofoam lunch trays, they learned a lot. The kids discovered only Buckfield, Hartford and Sumner schools used these, which happened after they joined RSU 10 and their reusable hard plastic trays went to other district schools, they said.
The No. 6 Styrofoam trays cannot be recycled in Maine, so they’re thrown away and end up at Mid Maine Waste Facility in Auburn, which they toured in November 2015.
During their extensive research, they read about harmful health effects caused by using Styrofoam containers and/or trays.
“We also learned that … Styrofoam trays, when any hot liquid [is] put in any bowls or cups or hot food on the trays, the chemical styrene is released,” Shyloe said. “It doesn’t cause cancer but it increases the risk of getting cancer and it’s also been linked to hearing loss, memory loss, vision loss.”
In trying to find a solution to their tray problem, the students conducted numerous interviews and went on field trips. This included interviewing Buckfield Town Manager Cindy Dunn about the town’s transfer station and waste collection system, Cafeteria Manager Rossie Kyllonen, RSU 10 Nutrition Director Jeanne LaPointe, Paul Anderson and Rich Petrone of Huhtamaki, and Joe Kazar, executive director of Mid Maine Waste, who the Buckfield Bots named their robot after.
They thought returning to reusable plastic trays was the way to go, but ran into some roadblocks in exploring this option. Their research showed them that dishwasher soap can be harmful and sometimes even fatal when ingested.
Also problematic is that Hartford-Sumner Elementary School’s water source is a well, and there could be an issue of water supply therefore, the dishwasher was removed from that building.
That’s when they turned their eye to something a little more sustainable, the fiber-molded trays made by Huhtamaki in Waterville. These trays are made from recycled milk cartons and are 100 percent compostable, the students said. The plan is to compost them at the high school, as there’s already a garden on site.
Both types of trays – along with a number of nixed ideas including the crayon belt, the memory notepad necklaces for older people and Redneck Recycling – were used in the team’s five-minute skit on their project. They’ve pitched their idea several times at competitions, in their schools and at a school board meeting.
“Huhtamaki tray – perfectly fine. Styrofoam tray looks like it got beaten by a badger,” Liam said as he held up both trays. “The Huhtamaki trays contain no health risks at all.”
“Unless you eat them,” Hadley said, laughing.
While the fiber-molded trays are better for the environment and students’ health, they’re not as easy on the school district’s wallet. The Styrofoam trays cost 2 cents a piece, while the fiber trays are 12 cents each. When the Buckfield Bots presented to the school board, they noted the extra cost and ask the directors to consider this during the budget process.
The students also created several posters and circulated petitions for people to sign to ditch the Sytrofoam trays and get the Huhtamaki trays in their lunchrooms. One poster included a drawing of a sasquatch, which reads, “Don’t be a Carbon Sasquatch!!! Reduce trash in our school!”
As for the Lego League competitions, they took home the first-place trophy for research at regionals held in November 2015 in Jay and first place for inspiration in December 2015 at state competition in Augusta. The team is judged on core values, its robot’s performance and the project itself.
“The beauty of this project is that it’s not only the science piece in the technology and programming but it also really encourages civic responsibility because the kids are being asked to tackle a real world issue and go through the proper channels – go to your town manager, go to your school board, see what you can do,” Andrews said. “And of on top of that it is scoring you on cooperation, how well can you work together.”
After they thought they were done with competitions for the year, the Buckfield Bots were invited to the invitationals in Arkansas, where they will go up against 72 teams from across the United States and other countries. They were recently granted approval for the trip by RSU 10 directors and will embark on fundraising efforts that will be announced in the nearby future.
All in all, the Bots even surprised themselves in how much they learned in embarking on this project.
“I know this project has definitely helped me grow academically and … as a person because I have learned to work with other people well because they are in a different school than me – the six-graders,” Siana said. “It has also helped me work on real world problems and try to solve them and it’s also helped with me the robot piece because now I know how to program a robot. It’s helped me … in many different ways.”