Malibu elementary school opens zero-waste campus


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The students at Muse School CA in Malibu canyon will no longer throw their spent glue sticks and granola bar wrappers in the trash. On Monday, the nonprofit private school for children age 2 through 12 unveiled a new zero-waste sorting unit that not only recycles valuable commodities such as plastic, glass, metal and paper, it reuses broken electronics and office materials and upcycles pens and other classroom castoffs that aren’t recycled through the city’s curbside system.

A sign at the school’s entrance lists the many items the school actively, if politely, disallows, including plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic straws, noncompostable takeaway containers, styrofoam and single-use plastic utensils, plates and cups.


In their place, the school provides refillable stainless-steel bottles to all students, faculty and staff. School lunch is prepared from scratch using organic and locally raised foods -- 30% of which will eventually be grown on site -- and all food waste is composted on the school grounds.

‘I have visited so many platinum LEED school buildings, and you walk in and there are plastic bottles and toxic cleaners and plastic straws. Muse is really about going 100% of the way,’ said school co-founder Suzy Amis Cameron, mother of five and wife of ‘Avatar’ director James Cameron.

Cameron, 49, co-founded Muse with her sister in Malibu in 2006 and relocated it two years later to Topanga Canyon, ‘but there was only so much we could do having landlords,’ she said. ‘The vision was always there,’ but it wasn’t until she and her husband bought the Malibu Canyon property from another school in 2010 that its 22 acres could be transformed into a facility that was truly sustainable inside and out. And not only in its day-to-day operations as an educational institution.

As the campus was created, Cameron worked toward 100% landfill waste diversion with sustainable design consultant Darren Moore and his Canoga Park company, Ecovations Lifestyle. All of the buildings on the Muse campus contain at least some materials that were salvaged from existing structures, including doorway trim reclaimed from the wood siding of torn-down buildings and a play structure repurposed from a water tank.

All of the wood chips in the garden were ground up from wood that was torn from other buildings and run through a chipper. The garden’s xeriscaped planters are ringed with broken concrete, also found on site.

But the most difficult aspect of Cameron’s zero-waste remodel was what she found inside the buildings before they were deconstructed.


‘It was as if a smart bomb had gone off. There were half cups of coffee, paper everywhere. That was really the beginning of some very difficult philosophical questions,’ said Cameron, who struggled with proper disposal of phthalate-laden plastic toys and two-stroke garden equipment, and how to get rid of outdoor pests without chemicals.

Cameron worked with a recycler that specialized in plastics with phthalates. She had the two-stroke weed whackers and leaf blowers disassembled into parts that were then used for the school’s robotics program. To rid the grounds of rodents, she hired a falconer, who now lives on site and unleashes his hawk on the grounds to dine on squirrels. The school is home to house cats and is also dotted with owl boxes, inviting both types of predator to hunt mice. Cameron said the rodent population has been reduced 90% as a result.

But the centerpiece of the zero-waste school is how the students interact with it. For that, sustainable-design consultant Moore devised a five-bin collection area that emphasizes reuse first. The first bin is for anything that can be reused or repurposed. The second is for pens, glue sticks, cereal boxes and whatever else the school has agreed to upcycle into other products through Terracycle. Only then are objects considered for recycling. A fourth bin is for e-waste, and the fifth, and final receptacle, is for trash, which the kids themselves dispose of after weighing it to see how close to their zero-waste goal they’ve gotten.

The next step is to install solar and move the school to net zero energy, said Cameron, adding, ‘Give me a couple years.’


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-- Susan Carpenter