What Are School Recycling Programs Teaching Our Kids?

What Are School Recycling Programs Teaching Our Kids?

On a regular basis, I enjoy getting up close and personal with recycling stakeholders. I’ve learned that individuals aren’t bashful about sharing their opinions on waste management and recycling. While views may differ from region to region, there always seems to be one constant.

Invariably, without prompting or solicitation, people believe that the key to successful community recycling programs begins in the classroom. Typically stated with passion and conviction, this premise is rarely, if ever, challenged.

With a projected enrollment of 58 million students, public schools host a captive audience, who produce large quantities of material suitable for recycling and composting. The findings from a school waste study conducted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency show that Minnesota schools generate one half pound of waste per student per day. If Minnesota is representative of the nation, our public schools would produce roughly 14,500 tons of waste per day. To put things in perspective, that is relatively the amount of municipal waste generated in cities the size of Philadelphia or the amount disposed in New York City each day. In other words, too large to ignore.

Approximately 24 percent of school waste is recyclable paper and paperboard, while another 50 percent is food waste and non-recyclable paper, which can be composted. That’s nearly 75 percent of the school waste stream, which could be diverted from disposal.

Yet, recycling is anything but a given in our nation’s school districts. Based on a casual survey of state recycling organizations, where mandates exist and are enforced, it is estimated that between 75 to 100 percent of the school districts implement some level of recycling program. However, few states reported that type of success. More commonly, without regulatory requirements, or where enforcement of existing laws is lax, the estimates are that recycling is conducted in 40 percent or less of the schools.

Where recycling programs do exist, the schools often are awarded for being exceptional, as if the idea were groundbreaking. That’s not to diminish the efforts of the students, faculty, and administration for initiating the programs. Rather, it is a criticism of the state departments of education for simply not making recycling the expected standard, not the exception, much like the curriculum itself.

Ironically, recycling is incorporated into school curriculums, even when no recycling occurs in the district. Educators favor recycling as an easy tool to demonstrate how individuals can make a difference in improving the environment. If not part of the official lesson plans, at a minimum, it is presented as special programming, often by outside sources like county or nonprofit agency staff. 

What should be of concern to stakeholders, however, is how the concept of recycling is being taught. Its influence on implementing financially sustainable community recycling programs may be greater than most of us realize.

When stakeholders point to the responsibility of schools to teach students about recycling, they also expect the schools to save money. Consequently, they shift the message from beneficial classroom experience to budget cuts. That strongly held belief spills over into how residents, i.e. taxpayers, view recycling services in general. Their willingness to pay for services is highly influenced by a perception that the value of the commodities alone can cover any operational expenses, and result in a profit for the handler. Those absolute types of ideas are hard to dispel. If they unintentionally originate in the very classrooms that we hoped would advance the cause, it may be having far-reaching effects.

Schools are powerful in the conveyance of social norms and beliefs. It is well demonstrated that permanent attitudes and principles can be firmly established in children as they enter their teens. In that respect, we favor education that cultivates positive environmental attitudes. Conversely, education that only presents one side of an issue, regardless of the topic, can artificially bias and hamper individual assessment later. To prevent that, we need to examine the school recycling message currently sent.

Recycling is promoted in the classroom as a desirable behavior with great overall benefits, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, the lesson typically ends there, as the simplistic right versus wrong. To add to the misperception, recycling activities may be initiated on a competitive basis with the goal of attaining some immediate reward, like a pizza party for the winning team. Complicating the situation, these competitive programs tend to be short-lived.

The problem with this approach is it ignores that the decision to recycle is not always black and white. It most certainly avoids any discussion that recycling has real and expected costs. Recycling is a complex issue that rarely provides immediate tangible benefits to the initial recycler. By teaching our kids that recycling always results in a slice of pizza “on the house,” without sharing in the cost of pizza delivery, we begin to subtly perpetuate the expectation for recycling to be free and for it to provide a monetary payback. When the programs are temporary, instead of reinforcing long-term behaviors, recycling is shown as a periodic activity, and one not worth the effort on a daily basis.

That paper, bottles, cans and food are disposed at their schools, while they are being taught to conserve resources, is a juxtaposition difficult for a child to understand. It illustrates that school administrators and boards don’t understand the economics of recycling. The hypocrisy of school systems that teach, but don’t truly place value on recycling, is a lesson that we as an industry should strongly object to being taught.

The excuses for schools not recycling are as universal as the belief that schools should promote the practice. Custodial staff or contractors are often blamed for failure to comply. To ensure that source-separated recyclables are not mixed with garbage and disposed, we place performance criteria in collection contracts. Similar provisions could easily be part of commercial cleaning contracts. Likewise, when teachers are held to extraordinary standards, schools should be embarrassed by their failure to require custodial staffs to meet this simple expectation.

Of course, the real reason recycling is absent in schools is because it isn’t free. Yes, imagine that! The lesson of being an environmental steward has a cost, just like learning how to swim or tapping into the internet. If we can’t get educators, our children’s role models, to comprehend recycling economics, how can we ever hope to attain our goal as an industry to resolve this issue in local community recycling programs? If schools are unwilling to justify this cost to local taxpayers, those same taxpayers will never understand the cost of picking their recyclables up at the curb.

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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