Monday, October 29, 2007

Resurrecting Recycling at Local Schools

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with recycling at any institution, be it a school, university, library or business. People can think recycling is going on, when in fact all recyclables are ending up in the dumpster.

So much can go wrong because, for recycling to work, so much has to go right. Everyone needs to know what's recyclable and what's not, and act on that knowledge. The containers in the building need to be strategically placed and color coded, and then the recyclables have to miraculously make the journey all the way to the big containers behind the building.

Anywhere along the line, the system can break down. Indifference is contagious. Idealism quickly turns to cynicism when a conscientious employee finds out that his or her carefully sorted recyclables are getting thrown away by the custodian.

Recycling is mandated in the state of New Jersey
, but from what I've seen, effective recycling is a rarity in buildings and at public and private events. To be successful, recycling requires participation by everyone. Everyone is responsible for the outcome, which is to say no one is. The cumulative effect of insignificant-seeming acts by insignificant-feeling people determines the result.

Adding to the problem, beyond widespread indifference, is what seems to be a cultural taboo against checking the rollout bins and dumpsters behind buildings. There is no other way of telling what recyclable "product" a building is producing. This is basic quality control--something we expect to be done with every other commodity in commerce, yet shun when it comes to recycling.

As you can see by the above photo from the high school dumpster, a lot has been going wrong. Cardboard, bottles, aluminum cans--all were getting tossed in with the trash when a few of us sought to resurrect a recycling program that had been stopped altogether through the summer.


When recycling was reinstituted in September, one thing immediately started going right. The custodians mostly do a good job of recycling cardboard.

Other materials, like cans, bottles, juice boxes and paper, are also now getting recycled consistently at two of the four elementary schools--Riverside and Little Brook--thanks to more than one hundred emails between school administrators, staff and a particularly persistent community volunteer, and most importantly a few passionate teachers who have helped institute a program in which the kids carry recyclables from each classroom to central rollout bins, and the custodians help monitor the kids' recycling during lunchtime.

Other than custodial supervision of recycling at lunchtime, the program at the schools aims to take custodians out of the picture as much as possible. The key custodians are those that work after hours, unsupervised, and for them, recycling is extra work. Since many people are careless, the custodians frequently encounter a lot of trash mixed in with recyclables. Who can blame the custodians for not wanting to sort through someone else's trash?


As of late November, there is no recycling of bottles/cans/milkjugs at Community Park Elementary, and there has been no news as to how Johnson Park is doing.
At the high school and middle school, the situation is particularly challenging, since the kids and teachers don't stay in one room all day, and so no one is responsible for any one room. The two schools have different problems. Though some recycling of bottles and cans is happening at the middle school, there is none at the high school, despite recycling receptacles in the cafeteria. Five rollout bins stand behind the school, ready for bottles and cans, and each week they are empty, except for an occasional black plastic bag with unwashed cans from the kitchen. The bag is a contaminant.

Despite the hundred-plus emails buzzing around, there has been zero recycling of paper at the middle school all fall (paper recycling is reportedly going to begin after Thanksgiving), and next to none at the high school. The bin in the picture shows shredded paper, still in a plastic bag, which is a contaminant. This week, however, for the first time, a "Paper Only" bin was completely filled with mixed paper, loose, unshredded, with no plastic bags. Thanks likely goes to the high school's student environmental group, which has been working to overcome the entrenched institutional realities and perceptions that make recycling such a challenge.

Past personal experience suggests that there is no recycling going on at school events, like school picnics or Back To School Nights. If any recycling containers are present, they are typically unpaired with trash bins, insuring that they will be highly contaminated with trash, which in turn insures that their contents will be tossed in the trash dumpster by the custodians.

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