David Thompson SS Recycling and Composting Club
As a teacher, I was always perturbed when students were putting things into the garbage can that shouldn’t have gone into the garbage can.
“Don’t they know any better?” I would ask myself. “Don’t they care?” “Isn’t someone teaching them where to put things?”
The answers, of course, were no, yes, and no.
I wanted to change that, so I set up a ‘Specialty Recycling’ program (some collection) bins outside my classroom. Since the school already had ample blue bins for regular recycling, and ample green-bins for composting, the only piece of the puzzle that was missing was specialty recycling, for items that are recyclable but not in regular blue-bins. They have to be specially brought to recycling depots for recycling. These include items like metallic wrappers (commonly from empty chip bags, granola bar wrappers, candy wrappers), crinkly plastics (like ziplock bags and crinkly plastic wrappers) and plastic bags (like grocery bags and plastic overwrap, which might be found wrapping up toilet paper rolls or paper towels).
After a few months, despite my signage right beside the specialty recycling corner, the bins were woefully underused. More misplaced items ended up in them than properly placed items. For example, a huge number of tin cans ended up in my ‘metallic wrappers’ bin. Didn’t people know to put them in the blue bin? It turns out most people expected the recycling corner to be comprehensive, so when they couldn’t find a blue-bin, they made the ‘best’ choice available to them with the options presented, rather than finding a blue-bin elsewhere in the school. I learned this as one student asked me, ‘Where do I put this can?’ To which I replied, dumbfounded, ‘In the regular recycling blue bin of course.’ ‘Oh, where is that?’ the student asked. It was my eureka moment.
I realized several things: 1) I needed the full setup of compost, recycling, garbage and regular recycling all in a one-stop shop. 2) People were making poor decisions on where to place items because they were not used to having to walk to different areas to complete their recycling and composting and 3) I needed help.
In the new year, my principal approached me with a funding flyer and told me I should apply for it, so I did. Shortly, I found out the grant application was successful. A couple of months later, a 2nd flyer ended up on my desk. I would never have applied for either one if someone else hadn’t challenged me to do it.
I don’t have time for this, and I’m not the person to do this. Isn’t someone more informed than I? Doesn’t someone have more time than I do? The earth didn’t care for my empty pleas, but the mirror was staring back at me with the answer…
With the funding in shortly after Spring Break, I called a meeting of the Recycling Club at school. It had 3 members. I presented them with my ideas. They were on board. We recruited more volunteers. I purchased equipment. I made better signs. I taught them what to do. They started doing it, then others started joining, then others, and their friends.
I turned a laundry rack on wheels into a portable sign board as a prototype sign. My admin gave me a few minutes during a staff meeting to share my ideas. Shortly after, other teachers wanted to borrow my sign; other teachers wanted me to spread the message to their classes.
At lunch or during Flexible Instruction Times (FIT happens twice a week for 45 minutes), volunteers of the recycling club come to my room, equip themselves with high-vis vests, grabber tools and buckets, and march through the school in search of garbage bins. They sort through materials and grab all the items they find in the garbage that should not be in the garbage. They return to my Specialty Recycling Area to sort out and properly place the materials near the end of lunch. On some days it is only 2 or 3 volunteers. On other days, it might be 10 volunteers. In total, at the moment, we have 25 volunteers; some have come only once or twice while others are ‘regulars,’ coming nearly every lunch.
The recycling club runs on volunteer will-power, effort and passion. I normally carry a full bin of regular recycling (60 L) to the cafeteria 200 L bins once a day, and twice on FIT days. The green bin (60 L) fills up every day. Specialty recycling items, like plastic or candy wrappers, are more compressible. The recycling club puts hundreds of these items into bins every week. I have to drive them over to the City’s Recycling Depot about once a week.
There is a lot we are accomplishing that was not getting done before, but there is still a long way to go. It will not help the school if only a few dedicated individuals are making a difference every day. Everyone has to learn to make the right choices so that someone else doesn’t have to come along with a grabber and fix their mistakes. Everyone has to make a difference, not just a few someones.
I’ve made an upgraded ‘Not-Trash’ Signboard on wheels. Soon, as part of grade level assemblies, I’ll be able to present the knowledge needed to make better decisions to all grade levels, and hence, all students in the school. The presentations will happen again in September, and maybe every September. I’ll speak more at staff meetings. Slowly but surely, we will teach people what goes where, so that only apathy, and not ignorance, will be the excuse for not putting items where they should go.
How far do we have to go? How much better can we do? That depends on how well we are doing right now. I did a little tester anecdotal experiment, and then a larger one with more items. I dissected a garbage bag full of ‘trash,’ with the aim of finding out anecdotally ‘How much of our garbage shouldn’t be in the garbage?’
The results were staggeringly sad and shocking. In the first experiment, the garbage bag I opened up had 40 items in it. Sadly, 39 of those 40 items should have been recycled, composted or specialty recycled. So I did a second experiment a few weeks later on a larger garbage bag with the help of some grade 8 students. They counted 149 items in this full garbage bag. They sorted out items into 4 categories: 1) actual garbage, 2) blue-bin recycling, 3) Green-bin composting and 4) Specialty Recycling. Only 19 of the 149 items were truly trash, with 61 items that could have been recycled, 61 items that could have been composted and 8 items that were specialty recycling. By mass, out of 922g of ‘trash,’ only 51g was actual garbage. Over 90% by mass of the trash should never have ended up in the garbage in the first place.
Reflection & Celebration
I thought people would have trouble with the specialty recycling concept since it is newer and people are less informed about it. I was wrong. Most people still can’t even get the regular recycling or compost in the right place, even though they should know better and are supposed to have been taught better. This includes teachers as well as students too! If we are going to truly change our future actions, we need better education on what goes where. It needs to be better implemented and embedded in early age curriculums across the country.
Currently, people want to be green and they think they are doing a good job of recycling and composting, but the actual results are scary. We are nowhere near the level we need to be at if we truly want to make a difference in land fills, oceans and environments around the world. If we can’t compost a paper plate when a garbage and a green bin are right in front of us, how are we going to actually make this planet cleaner?
The world won’t change overnight. Students in my school won’t change overnight. However, just because I don’t have time for this and it should be done by somebody else with more time who cares more, doesn’t mean we all can’t start doing something anyway, right now. The earth doesn’t care for our excuses or our ignorance, and until someone who cares more and knows more and can do better comes along, I guess I’m the one we’ve got. I know I’m not Mr. Right, but I am Mr. Right Now. Mr. Yesterday hasn’t knocked on my door yet, and Mr. Perfect doesn’t exist, so until then, I’ll do the best I can to change the way others decide.
The true aim of the Recycling Club for me isn’t to recycle or compost items daily. The true aim is to create as many better-informed citizens of tomorrow as students of today so that we don’t recycle and compost for a day but create as many informed recyclers and composters for life as possible. If we are truly going to save the world, it has to start somewhere. Why not start with me?