Friday, December 20, 2013

Will Foodwaste Recycling Succeed in Princeton's Public Schools?

Earlier in the fall, some rollout bins labeled for foodwaste showed up behind the Princeton High School. I had heard that foodwaste recycling was going to begin at the public schools, but the bins remained empty. Finally, I emailed superintendent Judy Wilson to ask what was up. A response came from facilities head, Gary Weisman, a week later:

"In response to your recent inquiry regarding food waste recycling at PHS, I wanted you to know that the program is underway and has been for the past few weeks. The bins have been on-site since September, but there were many factors that caused us to delay implementation. All schools are currently on board, but no one should be under the illusion that the ongoing implementaton will be seamless. However, with the support of our administration, custodial staff, aides and students we are hopeful that the program will quickly become part of our normal routine." --Gary Weisman, Dec. 2

Since then, plastic bags (presumably compostable plastic) of foodwaste have begun to show up in the bins. The opportunity here goes beyond saving some money by reducing the amount of trash headed for the landfill. One of the biggest lessons kids can learn is the cumulative power of our individual actions. Each individual's impact seems too minor to be concerned about, but if multiplied by everyone else doing the same thing, the result is game changing. 

Though this philosophy is drilled into athletes, it's in everyday life that the game is being played for keeps. The cumulative impact of individual actions--like recycling, voting, and how much carbon we pump into the atmosphere--determines what sort of future we will share. If one student throws non-compostables in the cafeteria compost bin, the custodians are likely to toss the whole contaminated bagful into the trash, sabotaging everyone else's efforts to make the system work. Everyone has to assume responsibility and pitch in. Foodwaste recycling will be toughest at the high school, where students are allowed to eat lunch anywhere in the school. That dispersion and general lack of supervision makes it all the more important that an ethic of recycling be promoted and sustained, lest cynicism grow about whether the high school's recycling program is actually functioning. 

What I've heard from conversations with staff fits with my experience back in 2007, while helping get recycling restarted at the public schools. Success is most assured if there's someone at the bin in the schools' cafeterias, ingraining new habits by making sure students throw their scraps and other waste in the right bins. This is essentially the role a coach plays with a sports team. The compost bin needs to be paired with the recycling and trash bins, so students don't have to walk extra steps. Signage has to be clear, both in word and, for those too distracted to notice labels, the "body language" of the containers. There has to be monitoring out back to make sure the after hours custodians aren't just throwing everything in the trash dumpster. To overcome cynicism, there needs to be feedback and updates so students have some assurance that what they are dutifully throwing in the recycling bins is actually getting recycled. Because it's so easy for recycling programs to fall apart over time, someone in each school with passion for recycling needs to be designated to monitor the program over time.

Above all, the administrators have to lead, to send a message repeatedly to staff and students that recycling matters. Otherwise, everyone will take silence to equal indifference. Recycling is not something peripheral to the educational experience, but central to the individual's understanding of his/her place in the world and impact upon it. It's a habit students can learn and carry with them for a lifetime.

In sports, there's a coach, and someone keeping score. Recycling is essentially a sport being played without any ongoing coaching for the individual players, and without a score at the end of the week (e.g. pounds of foodwaste diverted from the trashstream) that people can take pride in or work to improve. 

More tips on making recycling work in the workplace can be found at this link.

For information on how foodwaste may in the future be hauled to Trenton for composting and biogas production, rather than to the current composting site an hour away in Wilmington, links here and here are a start.

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