Students at John Muir Elementary sort for composting and recycling. Photo: Green Schools Initiative
Students at John Muir Elementary sort for composting and recycling. Photo: Green Schools Initiative

Berkeley schools are making a renewed commitment to recycling and composting after efforts slacked off over the past five years.

This year, a local non-profit, Green Schools Initiative, has worked with eight Berkeley schools, revitalizing recycling and composting programs. Green Schools was just awarded a grant for next year, so it can work with another eight schools in the fall.

According to Deborah Moore, executive director of Green Schools Initiative, recycling and composting are not only good for reducing landfill and greenhouse gases – they can also reduce the district’s spending.

“The Berkeley school district has potential to be saving $50,000 a year out of about $350,000 spent on trash pickup,” Moore said. 

John Muir custodian John Emery setting up the school's waste station. Photo: Green Schools Initiative
John Muir custodian John Emery setting up a school waste station. Photo: Green Schools Initiative

“In general, schools pay less money if they put out less trash, because recyclables have a dollar value,” said Mark Spencer, of StopWaste, the combined Alameda County Waste Management Authority and Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board.

In addition to the Green Schools’ work, at its June 12 meeting the Berkeley school board approved a resolution to become a “priority partner” with Alameda County Waste Management. That will secure educational programs for students in exchange for the district’s commitment to recycle and compost 90% of what can be recycled and composted by 2020 – the same goal, by the way, that’s been set for cities countywide.

The district will have to work to meet that goal, because as of June 2012, Berkeley schools were diverting – that is recycling and composting — just 36% of their total waste (including waste that is not recyclable or compostable).

Neighboring school districts were doing far better last year: Alameda schools diverted 64% of trash, Albany 57% percent, and Oakland nearly 50% percent. He said that a typical school’s waste is estimated at about 95% recyclable or compostable.

How could it be that the Berkeley school district isn’t at the head of the class when it comes to recycling? After all, the city was the first in the nation to offer curbside recycling pickup back in 1973, and today, the residential diversion rate is 76%.

“It’s incredibly ironic,” agreed StopWaste’s Spencer.

But five and 10 years ago, the schools were actually doing a better job with waste – recycling and composting about half of it, estimate several people involved. That was above average at the time, for schools in the county, Spencer said.

Early efforts pay off

In 1998, then-Berkeley High parent Beebo Turman volunteered to promote recycling. Securing a grant, she started with five schools the first year, getting bins and signs, and visiting every classroom to teach kids, she said. She got composting going in schools where a garden or science teacher would make compost – this was before curbside collection. Turman added five schools a year until she had them all covered.

“I was a nuisance to some principals,” she said. And it was hard work. “After five years I said, ‘That’s it, I’ve done what I can do.’”

Turman passed the job on to another parent, Marcy Greenhut. The city’s waste management department had been paying first Turman, then Greenhut a small salary. When the city decided to cut the position, Greenhut said she asked the school district to pay her $25,000 a year, showing that recycling efforts were saving the schools $100,000 a year.

The district didn’t, or couldn’t, offer Greenhut pay – she doesn’t know why — and she, too, moved on to another job in early 2008.

System decays from neglect, lack of leadership

With the recycling systems in place, it would seem like program would continue to run. Not so, say the waste experts. Every year, “trained” students graduate, replaced by kindergarteners. Staff and custodians turn over with time. And there was no one to keep the momentum going.

Greenhut said that even summer vacation – when custodians scrub the bins and store them away – can break down the system.

By the time Longfellow Middle School parent Anushka Drescher launched new composting and recycling efforts this year, recycling was almost non-existent at the school, she said. Some teachers had classroom bins for paper, most not clearly marked – and didn’t realize those were getting put in the trash, not recycled, by the custodian. There was no recycling at all in the lunchroom.

But, said Spencer at StopWaste, “I would hesitate to blame the schools. They have the same challenges as elsewhere: not enough resources for teaching. It’s understandable that recycling has gone by the wayside.”

Turman added, “It’s sad to say you need a coordinator, but you do.”

One of the four waste stations built by Washington Elementary custodian Rafael Delatorre. Photo: Deborah Moore
One of the four waste stations built by Washington Elementary custodian Rafael Delatorre. Photo: Green Schools Initiative

A new push for school recycling

That’s where the Berkeley-based Green Schools Initiative comes in. Two years ago, the group ran a pilot program at Rosa Parks Elementary School, which now diverts more than 50% of its trash. Then Green Schools got grants from the Altamont Education Advisory Board and the Clif Bar Family Foundation, and last year the group formed “green teams” of teachers, administrators and parents at Washington, Jefferson, Oxford, John Muir and Rosa Parks elementary schools, Longfellow and King middle schools, and Berkeley High School.

Green Schools also organized a district-wide symposium on recycling and composting for custodians last October.

Most schools had some amount of recycling going on, Moore said. But, for example, at many “the compost containers had turned into another trash can,” she said. The group’s goals were to increase recycling and composting, and also to reduce contamination (for example, no recyclables in compost, no food in trash).

An audit was done at each school, and the green teams, including students, then improved composting and recycling efforts with signs, education and monitoring.

It’s not enough to put out the bins and expect sorting to follow. At Oxford School, during one recent lunch, third-grade monitors, Kovas and Lev, were on duty to help kids sort trash. Some kids were careful, some were clueless. And try “educating” 6-year-olds in a noisy lunchroom; what Kovas and Lev spent most of the time doing was moving food and plastics from the wrong bins to the right ones.

Those efforts have produced results. Oxford teacher Jackie Omania, who heads up the school’s Green Team, pointed to an entry in her class’s log for the cafeteria – March 15: compost, 64 gallons; landfill (trash), 16 gallons.

A third-grade monitor at Oxford Elementary helps a classmate figure out what gets composted and what goes into the trash. Photo: Green Schools Initiative
A third-grade monitor at Oxford Elementary helps a classmate figure out what gets composted and what goes into the trash. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Making progress with new focus

Indeed, a number of the schools are now showing improvement, Spencer said. John Muir, Rosa Parks and Jefferson are all diverting more than 50% of their trash. At King, where paper towels in the bathrooms are being composted, the diversion rate is 63%.

At Longfellow, Drescher and her student team of “Green Tigers” got composting going in the lunchroom, as well as the collection of paper recycling from classrooms. At Berkeley High students have collected about 640 pounds of bottles and cans this year, and improved composting in the cafeteria.

Spencer expects Berkeley’s 36% diversion rate will go up when all numbers are tallied.

Meanwhile, StopWaste provides another set of services to the schools. The agency offers free field trips (bus included) to the Davis Street transfer station in San Leandro, where the kids see a machine sort recyclables, and then visit “the pit” – all the garbage destined for landfill – and see how much of that trash is recyclable and compostable. From Berkeley, eight fourth grade classes and one high school group took the field trip this school year.

StopWaste also sends educators to fifth grade classrooms to work on waste-related projects. Students identify a problem at their school (such as not composting, or using only one side of paper), create a plan, implement it and analyze the results. Eight Berkeley fifth grade classes used this service this school year.

Because of anticipated budget cuts, StopWaste decided it couldn’t provide these programs to every school in the county in the future. So it’s prioritizing committed districts, by asking them to sign the agreement. That means they’ll aim for the 90% recycling and composting goal, create a policy, and keep statistics. This is the agreement the school board passed last week.

On June 10, Green Schools heard that it would get a grant for $32,000 from the Altamont Education Advisory Board to work with the remaining K-12 schools in Berkeley next year: Cragmont, Berkeley Arts Magnet, Malcolm X, Emerson, LeConte and Thousand Oaks elementary schools, Willard Middle School, Berkeley Independent Study, and the Berkeley Technology Academy. They’ll continue to work with this year’s schools, too.

The challenge, recent history shows, will be making the programs sustainable.

“We want to figure out how the district can do this on their own,” Moore said. “We want our schools to live up to Berkeley’s values.”

“What we’ve seen in other districts,” said StopWaste’s Spencer, “is recycling doesn’t work if you say it’s the custodians job. Recycling has to be everyone’s job — teachers, kids, administrators.”

Berkeley meets recycling goals, beats Piedmont [03.29.12]
Where does Berkeley’s green waste go? [06.23.11]

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...