Striving Towards Zero Waste in New York City Schools

September 2, 2016

by Megan Nordgrén   recycle2As New York City’s public school students get back to the classroom on Sept. 8, students in 100 of these schools will see some changes to how they dispose of their waste. Included in a pilot program, these newly-designated Zero Waste Schools are being set up as models for recycling and organics collection.  The goal is to identify best practices for diverting waste from landfills so that the lessons learned can be brought to other schools throughout the city. Schools were selected in Brooklyn and Manhattan, based upon existing Department of Sanitation (DSNY) collection routes. These Zero Waste Schools are receiving new recycling bins and signage, but also outreach, education and technical support to increase the rates of recycling. The Program is one of eight Zero Waste Initiatives outlined in Mayor de Blasio’s April 2015 One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City.   Waste Challenge New York City’s more than 1,800 public schools, serving 1.1 million students, are a significant source of waste in the city. Schools were mandated to recycle metals, glass and paper 27 years ago by Local Law 19, the New York City Recycling Law. Recycling regulations have been strengthened over the years, most recently by new laws in 2010; Chancellor’s Regulations A-850 in 2013 further reinforced the mandate to recycle in schools and established the role of the Sustainability Coordinator. In 2013, Local Law 77 increased the amount of waste that was considered “recyclable” by mandating a school organic waste collection pilot program. This was spurred by a grassroots effort by parents on the Upper West Side who initiated a self-funded food scrap collection program in 2012. Over the last three years, the DSNY has been increasing the number of schools in the organics collection program and now includes over 720, making up 40% of NYC public schools. With the inclusion of organics in the recycling program, the vast majority of school waste is now recyclable as it primarily consists of food scraps, paper and metal/glass/plastic.   Despite the mandates, recycling in public schools has lagged and overall compliance has been low. A number of reasonsrecycle1 have been cited over the years for these low recycling diversion rates. Education of both school staff and students is an oft cited concern, as many personnel and students do not know which items are recyclable and which bins they should be placed in – or sometimes do not know that a recycling program even exists in their school. Schools are used by after-school and other programs as well, posing another challenge. Logistics have also been a challenge as schools have been largely left on their own to determine how and where to place recycling/organics bins within the school, how to place signs and how to go about collecting the materials from the classrooms, public areas and cafeterias. Storage of recyclable materials when not collected daily has been another logistical challenge in some schools. There has also been confusion over the various roles that school staff play within the waste collection structure, particularly in the cafeteria where the SchoolFood staff play a greater role. Another issue is that schools rarely receive enforcement violations and therefore there can be a perceived lack of incentive to comply. One of the most critical problems, however, is that many schools lack administration buy-in so that there is no one at the top supporting the program.   Hope for Improvement The new Zero Waste Schools Program is meant to address and correct many of these problems. DOE and GrowNYC’s Recycling Champions started by doing walk-throughs of the selected schools in the spring to determine best locations for bins, needs for signage, and means for storage of recyclable materials until the designated day for curbside pickup. During the summer, schools received new bins for classrooms and public areas, as well as equipment such as dollies to assist the custodial staff in collection. Recycling Champions has also held meetings for custodial engineers, principals, kitchen staff and sustainability coordinators to outline the program and to try to build support for improved recycling. Once the school year begins, Recycling Champions plans to hold in-school assemblies and classroom presentations to educate both students and teachers about environmental stewardship and recycling.   NYC’s Waste Goals Mayor de Blasio’s ‘One New York’ Plan announced in 2015 outlines a series of targets and sustainability initiatives to prepare NYC for the future. One of these goals is to send zero waste to landfills and reduce waste disposal by 90% relative to 2005 levels by 2030. This also goes towards meeting the greenhouse gas emissions target of 80% reduction by 2050, as waste and its disposal is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Initiatives to achieve this goal include overhauling the city’s recycling program and providing incentives to reduce waste. The Zero Waste School’s program as envisioned should go a long way to achieving these ambitious targets both by significantly reducing the waste from schools, but also by educating the city’s young citizens to be better environmental stewards at home – now and in the future.   Zero Waste Future The Zero Waste Schools Program holds great promise for improving recycling in our public schools, with the hope that this knowledge and care for the environment will spread to the homes of the students. There are many barriers to overcome, however, including lack of school administration support and logistical challenges. As one custodial engineer in an Upper West Side school stated, “It is frustrating that something so simple as recycling is viewed by many as an inconvenience.” Perhaps the Zero Waste Schools Program will help to make recycling both more convenient and make the clear benefits better understood in our New York City public schools.