BROOKSVILLE — Hernando School District custodial supervisor Sean Arnold held a small, brown, plastic, 6-inch ruler in his hand.
It hasn't always been a ruler.
Once, it was plastic foam cups or food containers, like the trays the district's thousands of students use each day at breakfast and lunch.
Arnold got the ruler from Dart Container Corp., a food container production company with a strong recycling program. Arnold and maintenance director Ken Hill have tapped into that program to make the district greener and to save money.
They have leased a densifier from Dart for six months for $295 a month. The densifier compresses thousands of plastic foam food trays daily. The squashed trays are collected in a bag that is then shipped off to Dart's plant in Michigan for recycling.
This method keeps all those plates from being thrown into trash bins and saves that much space in the landfill.
The densifier was put into operation on Feb. 9, and the county was the first district in Florida to get one, Hill said.
The students are very important for its success. They need to tap any refuse from their trays into the trash and then put the tray in a stack. The trays are loaded into bags or boxes to be picked up by Dave Stanchis, who operates the machine.
"As long as everybody does his part," Stanchis said, "it's good."
The schools participating in the pilot program are Chocachatti Elementary, J.D. Floyd K8 School of Environmental Science, Parrott Middle and Moton Elementary. These schools produce about 6,000 used plates daily. By the end of the six-month trial, more than 600,000 plates will have been shipped to be made into polystyrene pellets.
Manufacturers purchase the pellets to make such things as the rulers, videocassette shells, toys, sun visors and building insulation. Other buyers make flowerpots, egg cartons, push pins, landscape supplies and desktop accessories.
Hill and Arnold would like to get some of Dart's rulers to give to the students so they can see a tangible result of their efforts. Arnold is also interested in getting other materials from the company to help educate the students and get them more involved.
When Stanchis runs the trays through the densifier, there is going to be, naturally, stray ketchup, mustard, gravy and other sticky residue. The compressed trays are washed later at the recycling plant, but it is Stanchis' job to rinse out the machine after each day's run.
He and Arnold agree that corn dog days are better than sloppy joe days.
The densifier is not the only method Hill is using to cut waste and save dollars. Fox Chapel Middle School is trying a compactor. It has resulted in the elimination of one of its two trash bins, a savings of $6,000 a year.
"We currently utilize pulpers at some of our schools and they are not cost feasible," Hill said. "Compactors and densifiers are cost efficient, eliminate Dumpsters and are environmentally friendly. The maintenance department is always looking for new angles to save money for the district and to be greener."
Another example is the waterless urinals at Fox Chapel and Parrott. The department hopes to expand them, as they save 30,000 gallons of water yearly.
The district is also exploring propane hybrid conversion systems for its trucks. The plan is to install the system on one truck at an estimated cost of $600. The system would allow the truck to run on propane gas, which is about $1 a gallon, and switch back to gasoline as needed. Yearly savings could be up to about $1,000.
"We're just looking into some neat things," Hill said.
Paulette Lash Ritchie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.