The jars on the zero waste table in Jacqueline Omania's classroom at Oxford Elementary show the amount of trash the class has produced every year since 2017, as seen on December 9, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Jars in Jacqueline Omania’s classroom at Oxford Elementary show the amount of trash the class has produced every year since 2017. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

There are no trash bins in Jacqueline Omania’s fifth-grade classroom at Oxford Elementary – just a row of mason jars, each containing a year’s worth of waste. 

The Berkeley teacher, who has been at the helm of a class striving toward zero-waste for almost a decade, is inching closer to the goal.

When Omania first started, her students produced five gallon-sized bags of trash. A few years later, they could fit their trash into a jar. Then the jars got smaller. This year, the class goal is a miniature one, half the size of a pint.

The mission requires commitment from every student. Just a few granola bar wrappers could jeopardize the entire project.

“They can mess it up in a day. But in all the years it hasn’t happened,” Omania said. “What does that speak to? They’re really tied into this as a community.”

Jacqueline Omania poses for a photo in her zero-waste classroom at Oxford Elementary on Dec. 9, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

After watching a documentary about plastic pollution in 2015, Omania committed to slashing her waste, at home and in the classroom. She began with “waste audits,” which revealed the obvious culprits. The first target was class parties: Instead of plastic cutlery, parents brought in snacks on metal trays and students ate with bamboo cutlery they washed between uses. Glue sticks, markers, and binders were banned next. Unpainted pencils replaced yellow No. 2 ones. Now, Omania gives every student in her class a package with all the sustainable school supplies they’ll need for the year. 

In the seven years since Omania started setting her students on the zero-waste path, the trash targets have become more elusive. One year, her class went on a hunt for tissue boxes without plastic lining — not so easy to find, students discovered. And the biodegradable alternative to colored pencils are, unfortunately, rather expensive. Breakfast and lunch can produce a lot of waste, but because students eat outside the classroom, the packaging waste goes elsewhere. 

Omania and her students have racked up accolades, gaining a reputation for environmental stewardship. In 2019, Omania won the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators and her students were honored by the Sierra Club with the Emerging Voices Award. That year, Berkeley also passed a first-of-its-kind partial ban on single-use plastics in dining, thanks in part to the activism of Omania’s students, and Mayor Jesse Arreguín paid the class a visit.

The better her students have gotten at reducing their own waste, the bigger their goals have become. Now, the students’ main aim is to educate others. And they’ve been succeeding, spreading the zero-waste gospel to everyone in their lives, from kindergarteners to parents to politicians.

‘Up to us to change the future’

Arjun, a student in the fifth-grade class, calculates the current results for the zero-waste classroom in metrics like landfill trash and number of trash bags saved, at Oxford Elementary on Dec. 9, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

It’s early on a Thursday morning, and 20 fifth-graders are solving a math problem. How many fewer trash bags would fill the dump if all the classes at their elementary school were to cut their waste for the first half of the school year? Almost 1,000, they calculate.

Ten-year old Ivan Laddish’s hand shoots up: “What would be taking it one step further is if we multiplied that answer by how many schools there are in the district,” he says. 

A classmate suggests calculating the number of trash bags used across all of the schools in California. Another student reminds them that there are private schools, too. “And college!” a girl adds.

At the front of the class, Omania smiles. Her students get it. It’s more than how much trash one fifth-grade class produces; it’s about an entire generation changing how humans care for our planet.

“It’s going to be up to us to change the future,” says Ophelia Michas, 10. “Since we’re so young, we can start something and continue it.” 

Since learning about plastic pollution, Ophelia has started thinking about how much water her family uses at home and how much energy goes into raising an animal for meat consumption. (Plus, cows fart too much, Ophelia says; she’s learned about the harmful methane gases the animals release.) Once students see their impact on the environment, they can’t unsee it. 

The students don’t all start the class as waste wizards. Ainsley, who moved to Berkeley from Kentucky, had not learned about plastic pollution before. “It was definitely hard adjusting,” she said. “Everything I’ve used was plastic. Plastic binders, plastic notebooks.” Now, it’s become second-nature. 

“It makes me uncomfortable when I see a pile of trash,” Ivan says.

It’s not about buying expensive, reusable products, though some people do that, too. It’s about consuming less and trying to limit your impact on the environment. At the class’s holiday celebration, students are not allowed to buy each other gifts: Only making presents by hand and re-gifting is permitted. 

When I ask if they still eat chips outside of class, kids nod sheepishly — only when they really need it. “Some of my favorite snacks are completely wrapped in plastic,” Ivan says. “I’ve been eating less of those.” 

“There’s a part of me that wants to give hope to the children and give them a sense of, you know, don’t sit back,” said Hazelle Fortich, a principal turned kindergarten teacher at Thousand Oaks Elementary. “Using a cloth napkin is just as impactful as going out to demonstrate.”

“It’s really planting the seeds, and I feel that that is a very effective way to start a revolution. I mean, all revolutions come from one person right, and here they happen to be 3 feet tall.”

Climate literacy education is growing

Students learn about zero waste in Jacqueline Omania’s classroom at Oxford Elementary on Dec. 9, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Omania’s zero-waste commitment is rooted in a lifelong love for the natural world.

She spent her childhood foraging for wild blackberries and snacking on the apricots growing behind her house in then-rural Martinez. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in environmental science, Omania became the farm and garden teacher at Sylvia Mendez Elementary, known at the time as LeConte, where she taught her students to grow vegetables and raise baby goats.

Fifteen years later, armed with a master’s in environmental education, she became an “indoor teacher,” but kept her passion for teaching students about nature alive. In 2012, she began teaching eco-literacy to third-graders, doing waste audits and eventually helping the school compost more. The efforts cut the number of dumpster pick-ups the elementary school needed in half.

Slowly, Berkeleyans are picking up on Omania’s zero-waste practices. A few elementary teachers are taking up the charge, climate literacy is coming to all grade levels, and the district is piloting a lunch program free of single-use plastics at three schools, set to begin as soon as students are able to eat indoors again.

In 2019, Omania worked with an undergraduate student, Ara Aman, to create a plastic-free planet curriculum in an effort to spread lessons on plastic pollution beyond her classroom walls. 

When Fortich returned to teaching after a decade as an administrator, she committed to a zero-waste goal, too, taking a few pages from Omania’s book. Down the stairs, Mary Lewis, a kindergarten teacher at Oxford whose daughter was a student in Omania’s class, has also joined the effort.

The students are making their own strides to spread the word. This year, the fifth-graders taught kindergarteners about their zero-waste classroom. And Agatha San Martin Herrera, a 10-year-old girl who has developed a passion for fungi, collected plastic bits on several beach visits, fastened them onto a piece of cardboard (not with a glue stick, but by sticking her fingers into a pot of glue), and toured her exhibition to multiple classrooms to teach them about ocean pollution.

Some students continue to advocate for zero waste long after they graduate from elementary school, joining the local chapter of a youth environmental advocacy group called Heirs to our Oceans. The group, led by Omania, has a long-term vision to create a reusable take-out container scheme that encompasses the high school, UC Berkeley, and the rest of the city, too.

And with the school district’s new climate literacy resolution passing in November, there will be more support for incorporating experiential climate education into the classroom, at every grade, coming November 2023. 

Then there are the parents, who can be the students’ greatest allies, going out of their way to support their kids’ latest passions. Some parents, though, are set in their ways and reluctant to change. Almost unanimously, the students claimed to have better waste practices than their parents.

“Grown-ups have habits,” Ivan explains, especially plastic-buying ones. “But kids, we have habits, but not as strong ones.”

“The toughest part for me was bringing [zero-waste] home to family and changing a lot of things that I did,” said Ophelia. 

Omania said the class talks a lot about how to approach their families with this topic. Everyone’s doing the best they can, Omania reminds them, so “you always have to be very respectful.” 

Next, Omania’s got her eye on the district’s school supplies provider (she wants it to shift to a zero-waste one called Wisdom) and hopes to one day reimagine the breakfast and lunch program. Sitting on a bench outside the school, she dreams up a system where fresh food arrives on a cart pulled by a bicycle and kids help prepare lunch themselves. For next semester, she’s crafted a sustainable design challenge for students to come up with their own solutions.

Ultimately, Omania sees striving toward zero waste as a symbol, a lesson in environmental stewardship more than an end in and of itself. 

“It’s really learning how to be the best person in the world, how to think deeply, how to ask questions,” she says. “That’s what we’re going for.”

Reusable water bottles are personalized and decorated with stickers by students in Omania’s classroom. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Vests decorated with wasteful plastics are used in public speaking engagements. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
A student shows the compost bin. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how many students were in the fifth-grade class. There are 20 students, not 18.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...