COSTA MESA — After finishing up his lunch, Jerry Pacheco recycled his cardboard tray and dropped his mushy brown banana into the orange compost collection pail.
Then the 12-year-old took a turn grinding up the uneaten food item with a shovel before making his way with his peers to the compost bins behind a fence.
"Worms eat the stuff and they poop it out," he said Wednesday, explaining how the bins work.
The College Park Elementary School sixth-grader is a member of the Costa Mesa school's Green Team. He helps run the daily zero-waste lunchtime program that challenges all students at the K-6 school to separate their trash for recycling or composting.
Jerry's work has earned him the Starfish Award, a districtwide recognition that was given to Jerry and nine other Newport-Mesa Unified students Jan. 10 by the school board. Jerry's family, teachers and principal were in attendance during the ceremony.
"He always goes above and beyond what we ask of the students in the recycling program," College Park Principal Julie McCormick said.
His fifth-grade teacher, Amanda Burns, who also serves as the Green Team coordinator, nominated Jerry for being the top Green Team helper.
"He was just the most passionate about it," she said. "He just has this huge heart — he wants to help. He's just a such a neat kid."
Jerry's passion for recycling was spurred by photographs of birds dying because of ocean pollution and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where the ocean's currents bring trash from all over.
From his involvement with the zero-waste lunchtime program, he said he has since learned what and how to recycle.
In addition to his participation, his overall spirit of giving was also recognized.
Jerry can regularly be found knocking on teachers' doors and offering his assistance, Burns said.
While Jerry helps teachers with odd jobs on his own time, he sees the work as giving back.
It's "to thank them for teaching me lots of stuff," he said.