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Is your school district recycling enough? If the answer is “no,” you should tap into a growing number of resources and support networks that are working to help school board members overhaul their facilities management, save resources and money, and build community pride.

According to state law, every school must divert recyclable materials from the trash for return to the marketplace. However, not all school managers understand this responsibility, and some place a low priority on recycling.

Unfortunately, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (NJDEP) investigation over the last year has indicated that some districts merely put recycling containers in place, but do not take action to ensure that recycling is actually occurring properly. As a result, students and faculty may mix trash with recyclable materials onsite or, unbeknownst to the district, the waste collector may throw both trash and recyclables into one truck. Both actions create “contaminated” recyclable materials. That diminishes the value of the recyclable commodity, sometimes reducing it to zero value. These practices are often overlooked, and they deprive the schools of the economic benefits of recycling.

The Finances of Recycling

About half of the trash produced by schools, as measured by weight or volume, is recyclable. Those materials can normally move back into the marketplace at no cost to the school because their value offsets shipment costs.

In contrast, trash disposal involves a significant ongoing expense for school districts. New Jersey’s solid waste disposal tipping fees are among the highest in the country – ranging from $53 to $125 per ton. The state’s larger school districts pay about $50,000 in trash collection and disposal every year. That cost can almost double if the school’s recyclables are discarded along with the trash.

Although a robust school recycling program requires investment in indoor containers, custodial equipment and internal training and education, those costs are quickly recouped through avoided waste disposal costs by diverting recyclables from the solid waste stream.

Improving Recycling Performance is Easy

A successful school recycling program requires some steps that are easy to implement:

  • Assess your current recycling performance. If a district is failing to recycle, the signs will be clear to those who know where and how to look. A short walk around each district building, including the school board’s office, should reveal large steel containers or a series of rolling carts for recyclables that provide as much capacity as the trash containers. The trash container should hold only trash; if it is filled with recyclables (e.g., cardboard) that did not fit into the recycling collection containers, the district is overpaying for service. Likewise, if containers are typically half full at pickup, they are sized wrong.
  • Although there is no nationally-recognized estimate of the volume or weight that a manager can expect a school to generate per person per year, a school should not shy away from setting a recycling goal.
  • Educate students and faculty on the school’s recycling policies and procedures.
  • Make recycling “user-friendly” for all students and faculty by labeling recycling containers in as many languages as the district workers need, or better yet, using pictographs.
  • Appoint a “recycling coordinator” who is responsible for – and has the authority to resolve – all reported recycling problems, such as overflowing containers or “contaminated” recyclables. The superintendent, business administrator or even the school board may need to get involved if compliance issues cannot be resolved by the recycling coordinator in a timely manner.
  • Measure the school’s recycling performance relative to its stated recycling goal, and inform the students and faculty of the school’s performance.
  • Review existing solid waste/recycling contracts to ensure that they support optimum recycling.
  • Develop simple protocols for monitoring the use of solid waste and recycling collection containers to ensure that recyclables are not being thrown out with the trash.
  • Schools might also consider challenging their waste/recycling collectors to offer bigger recycling containers and smaller trash containers.

Resources Available

Districts have historically been on their own to figure out how to handle waste. However, recent updates to existing materials, as well as increased training and assistance, are making it easier for school districts to comply and save money.

The Association of New Jersey Recyclers’ (ANJR) guide to recycling in the schools is a great introduction to the topic, and addresses problems schools will likely experience. ANJR is expected to update this guidance in the coming year.

For an idea of the costs and savings that a district may achieve from recycling, school boards can review “Practical Recycling Economics – Making the Numbers Work For Your Program,” available online.

Districts may also consult with their local municipal and county recycling coordinators, listed online. They provide expertise and some provide recycling infrastructure (e.g., cans, rolling bins, etc.). The district’s trash and recyclables transporters can also help design an efficient program.

The New Jersey School Boards Association is becoming a resource for districts, having made a big investment in sustainability education. Courses are being offered during this school year for school board members and administrators on sustainability.

Benchmarking programs which are designed to help school managers determine recycling goals and methods for calculating progress can help districts tie building management, civic activity, and academics together and build enthusiasm to overcome objections to change. Many New Jersey schools have joined New Jersey Audubon’s Eco-Schools program, while others have chosen Greenschools!, sponsored by Project Learning Tree .

A few districts have attempted the challenging Green Ribbon Schools program, and several have been awarded the Green Ribbon for the comprehensive evaluations of their schools’ operations.

Almost 70 percent of New Jersey towns currently participate in Sustainable Jersey, and in 2014, Sustainable Jersey and NJSBA will introduce a new program designed especially for school districts. These programs help to give schools a framework to examine their environmental and economic efficiency and sustainability.

Many of New Jersey’s school districts are reaping the benefits of minimizing waste disposal and maximizing recycling. Their recycling programs save money, build civic pride and, in some cases, are used to support academic skills. With leadership from school board members, districts can build effective programs. Now more than ever, schools have the tools and resources to develop a comprehensive waste management plan that protects the environment and the district’s budget.