- By Michael Fickes
- January 1st, 2013
K-12 schools can begin recycling in a couple different ways. For instance, one school district might implement a formal program organized along the lines advised by a recycling services provider. Then again, an individual school might mount a guerilla movement by buying recycling bins and plunging in.
While a formal program might begin small and offer a growth path, a guerilla movement may later adopt a more formal approach to build on initial success.
Consultants caution school administrators at the district or school level opting for either answer — start small.
“Don’t try to knock it out of the park right away,” says Herb Sharpe, corporate director, education and healthcare segment with Waste Management. “Take little steps. Start by recycling plastic bottles, for instance. Once you’ve gotten that right, start up a single stream recycling program by adding paper.”
“Don’t over plan; just dive in and start recycling,” says Michael Alexander, president of Recycle Away, a Brattleboro, Vt., recycling container provider that also advises schools as they set up programs.
Both Sharpe and Alexander agree that overly ambitious programs that fail to achieve initial success often wither away. Starting small protects against that.
Planning a formal program
Formal programs, such as those organized by Houston-based Waste Management, Inc., begin with a waste stream analysis. “We have a team that comes in and analyzes what is coming into the school through purchasing programs and what is going out in the waste stream,” says Sharpe.
The analysis looks at cardboard and plastic packaging, paper as well as laptops, printers, tablets and other new technology coming into a school to replace obsolete equipment that must be disposed of.
“The materials that flow into and out of a school are basically the same at all grade levels,” continues Sharpe. “The number of students, teachers, staff and administrators determines the volume of material. There are larger volumes of solid waste and recycling opportunities inside a high school because there are more people in a high school compared to an elementary school. Still, the materials are similar.”
Materials include basic recycling commodities such as fiber, containers, organics and food wastes and electronics.
Fiber is a recycling term that includes paper, corrugated cardboard, glossy magazines and direct mail paper and other products made of wood fiber. Containers, too, is a general term covering glass, steel, aluminum and plastic containers.
Plastic containers include polyethylene terephthalate or PET, a plastic resin that forms the kinds of bottles that hold water and soda.
Another form of plastic container is high-density polyethylene or HDPE, which forms plastic containers such as milk bottles as well as the plastic piping in your home and other durable plastic products.
After an analysis identifies the components of your school’s waste stream and potential recycling stream, Sharpe recommends setting goals.
“Ask yourself what you want to accomplish,” he says. “You might say that you want to get started by diverting plastic containers. If you’ve already started, you might know that you are currently diverting 10 percent of the total solid waste stream. Your next goal might be to double that this year.”
Schools with advanced programs might set even more ambitious goals. The idea is to set a goal, reach it, set another goal, reach it and keep going.
Oakland Unified School District seizes an opportunity
Back in 2009, Dr. Anthony Smith, superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, asked businesses and the community to help improve the overall well-being of Oakland students and their families. Waste Management, which has provided waste and recycling services to the district for more than 80 years, contributed expertise in sustainable practices and implemented recycling and composting programs at 30 schools in the district.
Following the waste analysis, 30 schools in the district set specific goals for recycling diversion and composting.
To get the program started, a bilingual recycling coordinator demonstrated recycling procedures for paper, plastics, metal and glass to students, teachers and staff.
Waste Management experts also demonstrated composting and explained the natural process of decay and renewal.
On career days, Waste Management set up job fairs exposing students to the kinds of work available in the waste management and recycling fields.
With Waste Management’s help, over the next two years, through the 2010-2011 school year, the district achieved a 43 percent diversion rate, reduced trash by 1,000 tons per week and earned rebates on marketable recyclable materials. A key component of the program’s success is the food-waste program, which has grown into the largest program in the City of Oakland.
Bin here, bin there
Recycling bins can make or break a new recycling program. You have to buy the right kinds of bins, identify them clearly and put them in the right places, otherwise your young students that constantly turn over may not understand what you want.
A number of recycling best practices relate to bin selection and bin placement, says Alexander.
“First, we recommend co-locating trash and recycling bins at each station,” he says. “If you just set out a recycling bin, you’ll get both recycling and trash in it. If you just set out a trash bin, you’ll get both trash and recycling in it.”
Use bins that provide visual cues, continues Alexander. Cues include different colors for trash and recycling containers — usually black for trash and blue for recycling.
Signage and decals also provide visual clues. “A best practice for signage says to place signs as close to the opening in the lid on the bin as possible,” Alexander says. “Ideally, signs use the same color scheme as the container. Don’t rely completely on words. Use icons or images on the signs to show what goes into the bins — paper, bottles, cans or trash.
“Perhaps most importantly, use lids with openings that mimic the shape of what goes into the bins. For example, use a lid with a slot for paper, and oval for containers and a large opening for trash.”
For single-stream recycling — recycling that places paper, glass, metal and other recyclables into a single bin —
use a lid with a circular opening bisected by a slot.
For one school district, Alexander provides cafeteria trash bins with lids that will only accept non-recyclable Styrofoam trays through a 13-inch-long by 3-inch-wide slot. “The only shape that will fit through the slot is the tray. This is kind of a guerilla tactic that forces students to separate the trays from the recycling, even those who aren’t tuned into the program.”
There is no universal shape for compost. Alexander says that his school customers use lids with a large oval or large diamond opening.
“The containers should be fun,” he says. “For instance, one of the containers we provide is shaped like a bottle. Make the graphics playful as well. The bins are the centerpiece of a recycling program. There is always a lot of excitement when the bins arrive, particularly in elementary schools.”
While formal and informal efforts can work, school administrators must prepare for the challenges involved in creating and perhaps more importantly sustaining a program.
In 2009, the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc. (NERC) received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utility Services Solid Waste Management Grant to provide technical assistance and training in waste reduction, recycling and composting to rural schools in Connecticut, New York and Delaware.
Eight schools, including Pencader Charter High School in New Castle City, Del., participated in the program.
With 615 students attending grades nine through 12, Pencader had started a small, informal recycling program in the early 2000s. NERC worked with representatives from the school to design and implement a school-wide paper and plastic recycling effort.
To develop the program, the school formed a School Recycling Advisory Committee with advisors from the administration and faculty and an Eco Team of five students.
The Advisory Committee set up and work plan for implementing the program. Under the plan, the Eco Team students worked with the school’s waste hauler to replace one of the school’s two trash dumpsters with a recycling dumpster.
Next, the Eco Team renegotiated the school’s contract with the hauler to reflect the need for fewer trash pick-ups per month.
“The new contract reduced the schools’ costs by nearly $220 per month,” Alexander says.
Perhaps more important, in each of the program’s first two years, the primary faculty advisors left the school. The remaining Advisory Committee staff as well as the student Eco Team enabled the program to pick up new faculty advisors and to continue without a misstep. The point is that it is important to involve administrators, faculty and students from the start. A large group can institutionalize the program and overcome leadership losses — which will eventually happen to any program.
The business case
While recycling ranks high as an ecologically sound activity offering educational opportunities related to the environment, most schools will also find that recycling offers economic benefits.
“One of the goals for a school recycling program is to right-size the dumpster and reduce the number of times per month that a hauler picks up trash,” says Waste Management’s Sharpe.
“Suppose your trash hauler is picking up your trash in four or five eight-yard containers four times per week at each of, say, 20 schools in your district,” he continues. “If you start a recycling program that includes a compactor for the recycling materials, you might be able to reduce the number of pick-ups per week from four to two at each school. That can save a lot of money.
“In addition, if your recycling volumes are high enough — and the current commodity prices for recycling materials are high enough — your hauler may share some of the revenues obtained from selling various recycling commodities. That will help to reduce costs even further.”
Recycling isn’t just good for the planet — it’s good for a school budget.