Good recycling habits should start at a young age and this is why GrowNYC launched the New York City Public Schools Recycling Champions Program in an effort to educate students of various ages and promote recycling in schools. So far, 17 schools in New York City have implemented model recycling programs and have lowered their community's environmental impact. Schools across the country could do the same by following the steps to successful recycling encouraged by Robbie Lock, Recycling Champion's founder. Lock was a 2011 Local Hero nominee for our Heart of Green Awards. Here are some specifics on how his program works and his personal recommendations for schools looking to go green.
TDG: What were schools doing before you started working with them? Did you measure baseline and target recycling rates?
With the help of the Department of Education Sustainability Initiative, the schools participating in Recycling Champions were identified as those lagging in recycling (that) would be receptive to hands-on assistance. All the schools were at varying stages of recycling; some lacked separate bins for paper in classrooms, while others had yet to institute recycling in the cafeteria.... A waste audit at several schools helped to establish a recycling diversion rate. We found the diversion rate to be 10%. Our target rate then became 20%, with the confidence that once in place, a school's diversion rate could exceed 50% since the school's waste stream has a higher percentage of recyclables than the residential waste stream.
Explain what steps you took with the program in your attempt to improve recycling rates?
Securing the buy-in and leadership of faculty and administration is the most important first step which we accomplished through professional development workshops. Faculty sets the tone from year to year and can establish a culture of recycling. From there our next step was to educate and empower students through assemblies, presentations, and classroom activities. Students need to know not only what can be recycled and where it goes, but also how this simple action can positively impact their community, city, and planet. Next we made sure the school had the infrastructure it needed such as bins and labels. These need to be in consistent locations around the school and in classrooms to develop good habits. With these steps in place we made sure that the custodial staff was able to keep materials separate prior to being collected.
After one year, what are your biggest accomplishments? Can you quantify them, in terms of pounds recycled or recycling rates?
We're most proud that we saw recycling become an easy, everyday part of life at 17 schools in New York City. Recycling Champions delivered and presented 100 recycling presentations, classroom lessons, cafeteria sessions, and events that reached to over 8,000 students. Nearly 650 faculty members participated in 20 professional development workshops on recycling. We worked closely with city agencies like the Department of Education's Sustainability Initiative to deliver recycling presentations to 800 school custodian engineers, and 600 school skilled trades employees. Recycling Champions also produced a short film with the Department of Education on school recycling.... With the help of the custodial staff, Recycling Champions schools have been doing a weekly bag count, which tracks the number of 55-gallon bags collected for three streams: trash; paper; and bottles, cans, and cartons. The bag count began at the beginning of the year and has continued throughout a school's participation in the program. The bag count will provide information on the volume of recyclables collected and the diversion rate. Obviously, we'd like to see an increase in the diversion rate of recyclables but a decrease in the overall volume of waste as reduction and reuse initiatives take effect. In March 2011, for example, MS 113 in Brooklyn, a middle school with 895 students averaged 33 bags or 1,864 gallons of waste each day. Their recycling diversion rate was 22% in March, with 13% of waste being diverted for paper recycling and 9% diverted for bottles, cans, and carton recycling, every day. The Bushwick Campus in Brooklyn which has 3 schools and nearly 1,500 students was not collecting any bottles, cans, or milk cartons in the cafeteria. We held an all-day event to launch recycling with 30 student leader volunteers, "The Bushwick Campus Cafeteria Recycling Roll-Out!" The student leaders showed their peers how and what to recycle, talked to them about why it is important, and then we raffled off prizes of reusable water bottles and tote bags. The cafeteria now averages between 90- and 125-gallons of recyclables collected on a daily basis.
What were the biggest obstacles that you identified?
Recycling at schools is a community effort, especially at first. So bringing key faculty, administration, custodians, and students to the table can help facilitate communication and settle logistical issues. Basic recycling education is lacking in schools and is crucial to participation from staff and students, so we wanted the school community to address recycling as part of broader sustainability issues through faculty meetings, or student assemblies. Knowing what to recycle, and why that matters is important, but if a school doesn't have separate bins for paper, or bottles and cans, then they can't recycle properly. So schools either purchased new recycling bins, or made their own from reused items like copy paper boxes, or wax buckets. Wherever there is a trash bin, there should be a recycling bin, so there is always the option to recycle.
What aspects of the program had the best results? What didn't work?
Schools want to have great recycling programs, but they need more resources, tools, and support. Recycling Champions has developed presentations for faculty, students, and custodians that will soon be available on our website along with signs, posters, pre-written memos and anything else a school needs without giving them more work to do. Students have their finger on the pulse of the school, so involving them by fostering leadership can generate positive peer pressure amongst students. Forming clubs or Green Teams has worked well, as long as they are sustained from year to year. Students are the ones that can create message campaigns, distribute and label bins, or monitor recycling in the cafeteria. The custodian-specific trainings and cooperation are key to success as well.... Recycling is a good practice that students should have access to at home and at school. During the second year of Recycling Champions, we'd like to increase the impact the program can have on recycling at home by offering more resources directly to parents during open houses and PTA events.
How do you provide incentive for students of various grade levels to recycle?
I'm confident that students want to recycle without always being enticed by contests or prizes, which is why Recycling Champions always works to educate and involve students. Many of the classes that helped to prepare messaging materials for their school, or label recycling bins, did so as part of their class grade. Green Teams and environmental clubs also incentivized students with community service hours. At MS 113 in Brooklyn, student leaders that have helped to monitor cafeteria recycling have received GrowNYC t-shirts and we'll be throwing them a pizza party at the end of this month. Many of the incentives have also been involvement, when students help to design posters or set up recycling bins, then they feel a sense of ownership in their school's recycling program. Young people today are quite savvy about real-world consequences, e.g. solid waste disposal and climate change. They are motivated to make a difference in the world they will inherit.
If someone working in a different school in a different district is reading this, what steps would you recommend they take to improve recycling?
Faculty creates the culture from year to year, so they need to be the first step in a sustainable recycling program. Make sure faculty has what they need as far as bins and labels and signs, ask them to make recycling a classroom rule and school expectation. Students will follow their lead and direction... A school should make recycling an expectation of faculty and students from day one of the school year, and administration should set the right tone of enthusiasm, support, and leadership. This can happen during the first staff meetings, professional development, or school assemblies. Every school should start out by making sure they're recycling paper in classrooms and offices... A school's green path needs to be sustained from year to year by ensuring these practices become good habits that happen every day. If a school is confident in their recycling program then focusing on energy reduction is a natural next step. Recycled materials are made using 20-95% less energy than from raw materials, which means less pollution and conserving more natural resources. Energy reduction helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can save schools on their electric bill.
Can the Champions Recycling program be implemented in any school or only in schools with certain types of infrastructures and funding?
Any school can be a Recycling Champion by bringing the school community together to develop good habits and sustainable practices that can be fostered from year to year. NYC public schools are offered free recycling from the Department of Sanitation. A private school or a school outside NYC should check with their waste management company about what collection opportunities exist. See GrowNYC's Recycling Champions School Resources for more ideas.... GrowNYC's Recycling Champions is a grant-funded program, offered at no cost to select schools in each borough. NYC public schools have free recycling services from the Department of Sanitation, and are required to recycle by law. A school doesn't need additional funding to recycle; some schools use funds to purchase new recycling bins, while others have applied for grants for bins, or made recycling bins from reused items like copy paper boxes. GrowNYC received funding in 2010 from the Coca-Cola Foundation for year one activities; we are currently seeking new funding sources to keep the program going and growing for year-two.
What are your next steps for this program?
Recycling Champions is going to expand to additional schools in each borough for the 2011-2012 school year. We'll also be making available online guides to recycling in school, complete with downloadable resources like presentations and signs. The program coordinator will also be leading a workshop on recycling for 1,500 NYC public school Sustainability Coordinators at the end of May and beginning of June, organized by the Sustainability Initiative.
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