Every year Americans generate 250 million tons of trash -- enough to fill a line of garbage trucks that would stretch from the Earth halfway to the moon.
Studies have shown that at least 75% of our garbage could be recycled and composted; San Francisco has achieved a 77% recycling rate, the highest of any U.S. city. But our national recycling rate currently stands at 34%. We can, and must, do better. U.S. schools are not only leading the nation in energy efficiency, they are implementing model recycling programs.
On April 2nd, thousands of students, in schools from Connecticut to California, will aim to "recycle right" for four weeks during the 2012 Green Cup Recycle Challenge, a student-driven recycling competition for K-12 schools sponsored by the non-profit Green Schools Alliance (GSA). During the Challenge, schools compete to improve recycling compliance, decrease contamination, raise awareness about consumption, and celebrate waste reduction.
The Langley School in McLean, Virginia, became a "Recycling Champion" last year after it won the Green Cup Recycle Challenge, with zero contamination in 85% of its bins. "Our middle schoolers' leadership to increase recycling and reduce trash has been inspiring, and we have seen real change as a result of their work," says Kathleen Smith, Langley's Director of Academics. Ryan McKinney, Langley's science teacher, who helped students quantify and track results, said the Challenge generated excitement around recycling.
The unique approach is purposely designed to be easy, to maximize participation and provide instant feedback. Students don't have to measure quantity or volume of waste. They simply need to ensure that trash goes into trash bins and recycling goes into recycling bins, monitor bins for proper sorting, and record the data on the Challenge website each week. The process helps to identify contamination "hot spots" where recycling can be improved through better signage or bin placement.
"We don't have big corporate sponsors, and we're not giving away any prize money," says Rita Gerharz, a teacher at the Bullis school in Potomac, Maryland. Gerharz worked with the Green Schools Alliance to create the Green Cup Recycle Challenge in 2011. "We developed this Challenge to get away from the idea that filling recycling bins with more stuff was desirable."
At the core of the matter was a simple question: Are people recycling properly? "If you drop something in the wrong bin -- like food in a paper recycling bin -- you've possibly contaminated a lot of valuable material that may not be recyclable anymore," says Gerharz. "So the Challenge is about getting people to 'recycle right,' and to build awareness about the impacts of simple everyday actions." Fiona Caulfield, a 4th grader at Bullis, said she learned a lot about proper sorting of recyclables during the Challenge. "It made me feel like a better person," she said.
Like the Green Cup Energy Challenge, the student-run Recycle Challenge creates a friendly rivalry between schools that motivates everyone to do better. Students can compare their results with other schools across the country online. Points are awarded for recycling and trash bins that are properly sorted. Schools that earn the most points are honored as "Recycling Champions," with special recognition also going to schools that are "Most Improved."
A new system of "Bonus Points" awards schools with expanded recycling programs for items like food waste (composting), ink cartridges, electronic waste, textiles, bottle caps, and even construction debris. Schools can also get bonus points for doing waste audits, switching from disposables to reusables (cafeteria trays, plates, cups, utensils, water bottles), implementing paperless communication, and adopting policies for the purchasing of local and recycled products.
The Maret School, an independent K-12 school in Washington, DC, was recognized as a Green Cup "Recycling Champion" last year, with zero contamination in 83% of its bins.
"The Green Cup Challenge definitely helped raise awareness about proper recycling procedures," says fifth grade Dean Kiki Sweigert. "Our fifth graders were in charge of the "Recycling Patrol" and were very proactive. Each Friday for a month the entire class of thirty-six students would inspect each room's trash and recycling bins, teaching others what was recyclable, or not. Overall, the volume of our trash has definitely gone down."
Along with recycling, Maret has set up composting in the lunchroom, reduced its use of plastic trash bag liners, and pursued other waste reduction, water and energy conservation measures on campus.
The Green Cup Recycle Challenge plans to celebrate schools like Maret who go beyond recycling to reduce their environmental impact. "Recycling is just one piece of a school's sustainability plan," says Green Cup Challenge Program Director, Katy Perry. "Ultimately, we'd like to see schools move towards a zero waste paradigm. The Recycle Challenge is a great way for students and institutions to start thinking about waste and what we, as a society, should do about it. It's also gratifying to know that they can have fun while working together to change the world."
Schools can register for the Green Cup Recycle Challenge until Friday, March 30th, 2012.
CONTACT: Katy Perry, 860-578-0174, Emily Fano, 917-301-8830