Environmental Concerns, Bottom Line Prompt Schools’ Interest in Recycling

By Ellen Flax — November 07, 1990 4 min read

Environmental concerns, as well as the bottom line, are spurring many schools to begin or expand recycling programs, school officials and environmental experts say.

Although most welcome this “greening” of the schools, some environmentalists believe that several recent industry-led efforts to recycle such environmentally controversial products as the foam trays and juice boxes used in schools may be counterproductive.

Experts say they do not know how many schools are participating in recycling programs. Observers believe, however, that a growing number of schools, perhaps prompted by the publicity surrounding the 20th anniversary of Earth Day last spring, have begun to implement such programs to handle their own waste.

“Just from a gut reaction, I know that there has been a tremendous increase in the number of schools doing recycling programs,” said Neil Nevins, the resource-development coordinator for the New Hampshire Resource Recovery Association.

Since Earth Day, he said, his organization has received at least 30 percent more requests from schools and educators wanting to start recycling programs.

Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also said last week that they have noted a greater interest in school recycling. To meet the demand, the agency has released a new booklet, “School Recycling Programs: A Handbook for Educators.”

A major reason for this new interest, many said, is the growing shortage of municipal dump sites, forcing schools districts and others to pay expensive hauling and dumping fees. In some areas, particularly in the Northeast, such fees can exceed $100 per ton of garbage, school officials and garbage experts said.

Maureen Berg, the recycling coordinator in the Stratford (Conn.) Department of Public Works, said an aggressive school-recycling program is saving the town money.

By having the students recycle school-generated paper waste, she said, the town is earning about $20 per ton from recyclers, instead of paying more than three times that amount per ton to have the discarded paper hauled.

State Mandates

In some states, new recycling programs have also been prompted by law.

Since late September, all Pennsylvania schools in cities with more than 10,000 residents have been required to recycle aluminum, corrugated cardboard, high-grade office paper, and any leaf waste. Next year, the law will expand to include all communities with 5,000 or more residents.

In Rhode Island, meanwhile, a recycling mandate for schools that some state officials called “vague” is becoming strengthened. To complement a mandatory curbside recycling program for homes, the state is phasing in a recycling program for schools over the next year.

Under the program, schools will be required to recycle aluminum, tin, glass jars and bottles, certain plastic containers, and newspaper.

Individual school districts are also taking the lead in promoting recycling. Both San Francisco and Seattle, for example, have full-time workers who oversee school-based recycling efforts.

A ‘Bogus’ Effort?

While these initiatives are widely hailed, some environmentalists have questioned the efficacy, as well as the motivation, of recent industry-led efforts to recycle certain plastic products that are commonly used in schools, such as polystyrene trays, juice boxes that are aseptically packaged, and milk and juice cartons.

In these programs, the schools typically collect and separate the objects, and the company pays for hauling and recycling the waste.

Unlike used metal, paper, or glass, which can be recycled back into its original form, these products are transformed into hard plastic products, such as flower pots and plastic lumber. Industry officials acknowledge that the process is not always profitable and that more markets are needed for the new plastic products.

In response to pressure by environmentalists, a number of municipalities, such as Portland, Ore., and the Twin Cities in Minnesota, have banned polystyrene products. Just last week, McDonald’s announced that it was phasing out the use of foam boxes for its sandwiches. And last year, Maine became the first state to ban aseptic packages.

Resa Dimino, the resource coordinator for the solid-waste alternatives project at Environmental Watch, a non-profit advocacy group, called these industry-led efforts “bogus.”

“The recycling programs are popping up to justify the need for polystyrene,” she said. “Schools that have banned [polystyrene] are talking about using it again because they think they can recycle it.”

But Sarah Friedell, a communications specialist for the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, a task force supported by the plastics industry, said she does not “agree with the argument that polystyrene is being recycled in order to prevent it from being banned.”

“It’s being recycled because the need is there,” she said. “The idea is to take something known as a disposable product and then make it into something that will take it out of the waste stream for 15 to 20 years."Schools participating in such recycling programs said they feel they are saving money and helping preserve the environment.

In Lexington, Mass., for example, students have been recycling their foam trays for two years. Stephen Cooney, the district’s food-service director, said the trays, which cost about 2 cents each, are one-half to one-third the cost of paper trays, which cannot be recycled.

Although the high-school senate has tried to ban the use of foam in the schools altogether, he said, “the kids at the elementary- and middle-school level really enjoy the fact that they are helping out.”

In Westport, Mass., a foam-tray recycling effort began last month, said Paula Gendreau, the district’s food-service manager. The district had debated whether to abandon the trays, she said, but it decided that the status quo was cheaper than hiring new workers to clean nondisposable trays.

“Labor costs being what they are, we opted to stay with them,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 1990 edition of Education Week as Environmental Concerns, Bottom Line Prompt Schools’ Interest in Recycling