Compost, compost, compost

At a recent volleyball game at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Omaha, Neb., a spontaneous chant erupted: "Compost! Compost!"

Really? A bunch of high school girls cheering with gusto about garbage being coaxed into usable soil?

That's what a good educational background about Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," can engender in a receptive student body.  

This all-girl school became the first school in the city — public or private — to launch a composting program as part of a large-scale sustainability effort. Duchesne's achievement is something we should all cheer about.

The enthusiasm it has generated among students, staff and parents has been "inspiring," said my friend, Assistant Principal Eric Krakowski, who spearheaded the program.

It has proven so successful that parents are telling Krakowski they've begun composting at home, and students have volunteered eagerly to increase composting collection sites throughout campus.

How does this environmental commitment translate in practical terms? During one week in September, Duchesne collected 621 pounds of food waste and soiled paper products picked up by a composting company. They recycled 124 pounds of cardboard, 88 pounds of glass, 139 pounds of mixed recyclables, and sent 13 pounds of plastic bags and other plastics to Trex, which makes composite decking material.

Score: Landfill, 275 pounds. Diverted from the landfill, 985 pounds of waste. And that's just one week's effort.

Before the project was launched, a survey indicated 94 percent of students and staff felt sustainability was important to Duchesne — clearly "a mandate," said Krakowski. In 2016, anonymous donors, also inspired by Pope Francis' landmark social teaching, paid for the Omaha sustainability firm, the Verdis Group, to assess goals for Duchesne.

One long-term goal is that by 2030, 100 percent of school waste can be diverted away from the landfill. The figures above show that Duchesne is already diverting more than 70 percent.

The lunch program was an obvious target. Out went plastic cutlery and Styrofoam. Plates and utensils are now washed, and anything disposable should also be compostable. Locally sourced food became a priority.

Krakowski said another goal is "to become net positive in energy usage by the year 2030." The school, which has already achieved an Energy Star rating, hopes to launch a solar energy project this fall.

"This is probably the most fun I'm having in my job," said Krakowski, who said environmental issues are "a passion for me."

Duchesne's success raises the question: When will more Catholic institutions step up?

"Personally, I've been very disappointed that I don't hear 'Laudato Si’' talked about in our parishes and in homilies," Krakowski said. "We're not challenged to consume less as part of the Gospel message."

Duchesne Academy has a long, prestigious history in this Missouri River town. Founded in 1881 by Religious of the Sacred Heart, the stately old brick campus once housed a college, which closed in 1968.

Today, the school is part of a network of 24 Sacred Heart schools in the U.S. and Canada, which together espouse a goal of teaching "a social awareness which impels to action," which endeavors to teach "respect for creation and prepare students to be stewards of the earth's resources."

Clearly, these young women are embracing practices and attitudes toward consumption and respect for our earth that they'll carry through their lives.

How about us? I'm not the only person in my crowd who now carries her own fork to events where I fear plastic will be the only choice.

Can we encourage bigger changes at parish events and schools? Recycle, reuse, reduce. Inspired by "Laudato Si,’ Catholic institutions can lead the way.

Caldarola writes from Omaha, Neb.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018