The (new) three R's

How to rally for a greener culture at your child's school

Three years ago, when Zaleena Dasrath’s daughter Ariel was eight, she joined the eco-police. “Mom,” she would say as Dasrath reached to throw some paper in the trash, “that can be recycled.” Ariel happily plucked garbage from the playground at lunch or recess, harassed family members to turn out the lights and began to take reusable lunch containers to school. “She really got into it,” says Dasrath.

Ariel’s ardent interest in the environment was part of Elmlea Junior School’s initiative to cut down on its garbage, get kids thinking about their impact on the world, and green the school ground. The Toronto school recycles paper, cans and bottles, has litter-free lunches and gets parents and kids involved in cleanup efforts at school and in the neighbourhood. In the last four years, Elmlea has gone from producing more than 1300 kilograms of garbage a week to 156 kilograms, a drop of about 88 percent, with more than 65 percent diverted from landfill. Elmlea was awarded Gold Eco School by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and was recognized by the Recycling Council of Ontario for the 2006/07 school year.

But regulations about school recycling differ from province to province, board to board and even school to school. Many schools don’t have programs like Elmlea’s and though kids are taught about the importance of recycling, all too often they have no choice but to toss empty tins, bottles and paper products into the rubbish bin. As a rule, if there is a recycling program operating at all, it is usually because an individual teacher or parent has spearheaded the effort.

Part of the problem, says Carol Sarich, principal at École Sister O’Brien Elementary School in Saskatoon, is that recycling isn’t really part of anyone’s job description. Although her school has an extensive recylcing program, “our caretakers have a minimal amount to do with it, other than the fact that they sweep the recycling hallway. The rest is done by the staff, parents or students.”

Sarich says agreement among parents and teachers on the importance of recycling “has to be your starting point.” At Sister O’Brien, a passionate teacher-librarian took up the cause, but was wise enough to know she couldn’t carry it on her own. “She got a number of staff members involved and they, in turn, got parents and kids involved,” says Sarich. This is how the school formed its very own eco-team.

That kind of approach ensures you have buy-in from the people who are actually going to be responsible for the program, says Mieke Foster, a waste management specialist with the TDSB. “Too often in the past, there has been one key teacher who burns out after three or four years,” says Foster. What Sister O’Brien has created, on the other hand, is what Sarich calls “a culture of recycling.”

Creating a greenprint

Once you have your green team, the next step is conducting a waste audit. In Foster’s opinion, nothing beats a hands-on approach with kids: “I say to students, ‘We’re doing archaeology 24 hours later. What can we tell about ourselves from what we see in the garbage cans?’ Often the very first thing the kids say is ‘Look at all that paper! We should be recycling it.’”

When doing your audit, Foster recommends checking every room in the school, including the library, office and gym. Once you know what is being tossed out, you can brainstorm ideas for recycling. Make it simple for everyone to take part, advises Sarich, or it simply won’t get done.

At Sister O’Brien, teachers and students fill the classroom recycling boxes, then some of the more committed students rinse juice and milk containers and separate them into larger bins. Parents drive it all to the nearest recycling plant and collect deposits that pay for pickup of recyclable paper. The school also composts food scraps for its lawn and garden.

It’s not enough, cautions Foster, to simply set up a recycling program. Schools must engage in a constant show and tell to keep everyone on track, and that means finding creative ways to promote recycling. One Toronto school took contents out of a clear plastic garbage bag and put them in the main display case as a graphic reminder of how many recyclables were being tossed. Elmlea’s environment club, which has three student members, broadcasts a daily quiz over the PA system. And Sister O’Brien students get the community involved with special events, such as a recent phone book recycle drive.

Elmlea and Sister O’Brien have found ways to make it tough for kids to dump their trash. Waste audits show a good proportion of school rubbish consists of uneaten lunches; the Recycling Council of Ontario estimates the average student’s lunch generates 30 kilograms of garbage a year. In response, because it has no composting program, Elmlea implemented litterless lunches. “They actually took the garbage bin away from the lunchroom,” laughs Dasrath. “The kids don’t have a choice — whatever they take out of their lunch bag goes back into their lunch bag.”

For Sarich, whose school operates a similar program, the way students treat their garbage is evidence the message is getting through. “No,” they remind each other when they see a recyclable item headed for the trash can, “you can’t throw that out!”

How green is your school?

Want to know if your school takes the three R’s seriously? Read on for some basic questions to ask:

• Are parents encouraged to provide litterless lunches?
• Are uneaten lunches returned home with kids?
• Is there a composting system for food waste?
• Do teachers link their green efforts with classroom learning?
• Does the school launch other initiatives, such as cleaning up the neighbourhood or pushing the walk-to-school message?
• Has the school conducted a waste audit to determine how much and what kind of garbage it produces?
• Does the school use clear garbage bags so staff and students can see the garbage they’re producing?
• Does the school try to use recycled paper?
• Are there bins for recyclable office and classroom paper?
• Does the office make double-sided photocopies?
• Does the school ensure only one newsletter goes home per family?
• Does the school recycle tins, glass and plastic bottles, milk cartons and juice boxes?