Pickup Artists

March 01, 2002 5 min read
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New California legislation asks teachers to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

For teachers Paul Cressman and Chingwen Miron, taking out the trash has become a pleasant Thursday afternoon ritual. Precisely at 2:20, the two dismiss their squirming 1st and 2nd graders at Duveneck Elementary School in Palo Alto, California. Then they hike over to a nearby fenced-in storage yard, haul out two-wheeled, gray, plastic recycling bins, and proceed to one of the school’s 4th grade classes in search of a few energetic student helpers. On a brilliant blue January day, Stuart Yee, a dark- haired boy in a Duveneck Dragons T-shirt, can’t wait to get started. “I like walking into the classrooms and sorting through the paper and carrying it out and putting it into the bins,” he explains with a grin. “At the end of the day, I feel like running around and getting a little exercise.”

Following the teachers outside, Stuart and six other chosen students get down to business, quietly entering each classroom, then emerging with plastic buckets and cardboard boxes loaded with snipped bits of construction paper, scribbled math sheets, and crumpled art projects the classes set aside during the week. After making sure there are no nasty surprises—such as greasy lunch bags or old glue bottles—mixed in with the wastepaper, the kids dump it, along with scraps collected from the school office, into the big gray bins. Then they proudly roll the containers, their little muscles bulging, out to the curb for pickup the next day by the city of Palo Alto. The last step: a quick wash of hands before heading home.

The school’s mixed-paper recycling program is simple enough—in all, it takes just 15 minutes one day a week for the teachers and student helpers to do their part for the planet. Yet currently, only about a third of California’s schools have recycling programs as modest as Duveneck’s. Under a new California law, though, this most likely will change. SB 373, which went into effect on January 1, directs the state’s waste management and conservation agencies to work closely with districts to promote school litter- and waste-reduction programs. Although schools aren’t required to participate, the bill’s author, state Sen. Tom Torlak son, hopes 75 percent of California’s campuses will have some kind of recycling program in place by the beginning of 2004. If it works, California will join the handful of other states—Arkansas, Connecticut, and Kentucky among them—that promote recycling in schools.

Torlakson, a triathlete who represents the state’s 7th District just east of San Francisco, first became convinced of the importance of school recycling during the 1970s, when he was a high school biology teacher and track coach. As part of his curriculum, Torlakson developed and taught a recycling component long before neighborhood curb-side bottle and can collection became common.

Since then, he notes, the need for campus-based recycling has grown even more urgent: A 1999 statewide waste composition study revealed that California schools dispose of more than 155,000 tons of paper, 10,000 tons of glass, 30,000 tons of metal, and 330,000 tons of leaves, grass, and tree and brush clippings each year. “Collecting and disposing of all that solid waste from California schools uses the taxpayers’ money,” the senator notes. “Recycling just half that material, instead of throwing it away, would save $26 million to $34-million each year in disposal costs.”

As it now stands, most school recycling efforts are initiated and sustained solely by thoughtful parents or teachers like Cressman and Miron. Besides collecting scrap paper from Duveneck’s classrooms each week, the two encourage their colleagues to deposit their Snapple bottles and Coke cans into special bins in the teachers’ lounge, which they collect and put out along with the wastepaper on Thursday afternoons. “For me personally, it was just something I was fed up with, all this stuff going into the garbage,” Cressman explains. Now that the teachers have a routine going, he adds, “It’s pretty easy. Most of the kids are familiar with where the recycling boxes are placed in the different classrooms. And the kids really like to help. I feel guilty that I can’t take more volunteers each time.”

To comply with the law, the California Integrated Waste Management Board has established a new division, the Office of Integrated Education, which is spending 2002 gathering information on existing school recycling programs. By the beginning of next year, the office hopes to establish Environmental Ambassador Awards to recognize schools with model recycling plans, as well as a $1.5 million grant program to encourage non- recyclers to teach kids about reducing waste, recycling, and composting. It also is surveying teachers statewide about their needs and views on environmental education because the bill requires the state board of education to incorporate environmental concepts into its science framework.

If such steps fail and the 75 percent participation goal isn’t met, “then the state can look at more extensive mandates to get the schools to recycle,” explains Robert Oakes, a spokesperson in Torlakson’s Sacramento office. Cressman believes that will be necessary. “I’m definitely happy that the state is doing something to encourage recycling,” he says, “but I think they’re being a little soft. Somewhere, somebody has to say, ‘You have to recycle.’ If they don’t do that, I’m skeptical about how many schools will.” Certainly, a major reason educators in Arkansas, Connecticut, and Kentucky all recycle is that it’s the law in their states.

Still, if California educators do rise to the challenge, they may discover, as Duveneck Elementary has, that garbage can be used for good. “It’s fun to help with, like, recycling,” says Danielle Carlson, a bubbly 4th grader with a purple star on her shirt and a pink wristwatch. “It’s good to not waste paper.” And, she confides quietly, “It’s really fun to do because only seven people get to be called.”

—Theresa Johnston


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