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A new citywide plan for school district recycling gets off the ground

"You wouldn’t think it’s that hard, because pretty much everyone recycles at home, right? So what is the big problem at school?” asks Megan Garner, Sustainability Program Manager at the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Environmental Management and Services. They're rolling out the ambitious five-year city-wide "GreenFutures" program, bringing a full recycling program to each of the District’s 218 schools.
Recycling does exist in City schools, but it’s limited -- they are all able to recycle cardboard. Forty-two schools also have a dumpster for co-mingled recyclables and a vendor to haul them, but at the remaining schools, all other recyclables (including cans and bottles) currently go right into the trash.
A longtime in-house contractor with the School District through Keating Environmental Management, Garner has been working closely on the District’s sustainability plan (launching this spring) with her supervisor Francine Locke, director of the Office of Environmental Management and Services.
"We would like to expand the program, but we’re having trouble getting participation at the schools," says Garner. Many principals and staffers face pressing issues that make it tough to prioritize recycling.
But according to some studies, about ninety percent of the average classroom’s waste is recyclable. So is this as simple as just putting recycling bins in Philly classrooms?
No, Garner insists, if they don't bring kids on board with the initiatives, "we would be missing a large educational piece with our students…We’re not in the waste business; we’re in the education business."
That means not just relying on District staff -- teachers and building engineers -- or outside vendors to make District-wide recycling a reality. It’s getting the kids in on the ground floor.
Garner hopes students and staff can eventually see that recycling isn’t a "stand-alone" proposition and build understanding of the "embodied energy" that our trash represents: the use of raw materials and depletion of natural resources, and energy spent shipping, processing and packing. There are also plenty of cross-curricular, interdisciplinary links, like the impact recycling has on our drinking water, air quality and climate.
Widespread recycling also makes economic sense. Trash disposal currently costs a set fee per pick-up -- and an additional fee by weight when it reaches the landfill. Recycling shrinks the volume of landfill trash, lessening the number of trash pick-ups needed and reducing landfill fees.
"So even if you’re not in it for the social or environmental aspects, financially it makes sense," explains Garner. "To be successful, it really needs to have the students involved...people don’t generally say no to student ideas. So if it’s student-driven and student-led, with the support of teachers and staff, it has a much better chance for success."
And it’s about preparing for Philly’s future, too. According to Garner, today’s students are "the decision-makers, the policy-makers, the leaders, the critical thinkers, the innovators of tomorrow."
Stay tuned for a closer look at the District’s plan to boost sustainability in our schools.
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Megan Garner, School District of Philadelphia

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