According to state law, every school must divert recyclable materials from the trash for return to the marketplace. Approximately 24 percent of school waste is recyclable paper and paperboard, while another 50 percent is food waste and non-recyclable paper, which can be composted.

That’s nearly 75 percent of the school waste stream, which could be diverted from disposal.

Yet, recycling is anything but a given in our nation’s school districts. An investigation by the state Department of Environmental Protection 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 on site 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.

Students from the Community Problem Solving team at High School North started a sustainability program called gLEAFul.

For most schools this is hardly headline news, but for WW-P it promises to be a launch pad that has started to impact hundreds of students, teachers and administrators across the district and hopes to integrate environmental sustainability into the school’s curriculum.

Kristina Khaw from the CMPS program says school is a good place to learn the “Three Rs,” Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. When we all understand the importance of this simple principle, we can have a lasting impact.

Through a school survey (200 students), the CMPS group found that 84.5 percent of students were unaware of the school’s efforts to recycle and only 10.3 percent of students even bothered to recycle at school.

At the same time an overwhelming majority of students—97.1 percent— were concerned about the human impact on the environment, and almost the same number of students—95.5 percent—were willing to change their lifestyle to reduce damage caused to the environment.

All that was really needed was a concerted program to educate students and make recycling easier to adopt.

The CMPS has accomplished a great deal in a short period. By working with school administrators and the Sustainable Jersey Program, we created and distributed educational materials (green tips), built a website and uploaded videos.

Similarly, a lesson plan we developed to teach elementary school children (9-11 year olds) about the lifespan of different types of trash and the Rs of green habits, was received well by students of the Millstone Elementary School.

From January 21-26, the CMPS team organized Recycling Week, which culminated in a Recycling Fair with a variety of stations to teach students about sustainability and ways to be more environmentally friendly.

As a result of these efforts, approximately 300 students actively participated in Recycling Week activities and also attended the fair.

According to the Post-Recycling Week survey, now 86.7 percent of school students believe that the school recycles and 93.4 percent of students are more likely to recycle or reuse products at school.

Students have also started a vermicomposting, or worm composting program in order to reduce waste produced by the school cafeteria.

On May 29, CMPS held a sustainability seminar at the Plainsboro Public Library. This seminar was be open to all students, though it was targeting younger children.

A number of guest speakers along with members of the North CMPS team gave informative presentations about sustainability, recycling and composting.

Through engaging visuals and interactive presentations, the attendees were able to learn about the necessity to leave a green impact on our community.

Whether it’s batteries or bottles, paper or cans, school recycling programs demonstrate the power of multiplication.

They show that when many people combine their seemingly small actions, big things can be achieved.

With more than 1.37 million students in New Jersey public schools, the waste generated is significant. To put it in perspective half a pound of waste per student each day is equivalent to municipal waste generated by cities the size of Philadelphia or New York. In other words, the problem is too large to ignore.

— Anushka Iyer
Iyer is a member of the Community Problem Solving team at High School North.