What are school refresher programs teaching our children?

I regularly like to get closer to recycling players. I have learned that people do not hesitate to share their opinions on waste management and recycling. While views may differ from region to region, there always seems to be a constant.

Invariably, without prompting or solicitation, people believe that the key to successful community recycling programs begins in the classroom. Usually stated with passion and conviction, this premise is rarely, if ever, disputed.

With an expected enrollment of 58 million students, public schools cater for a captive audience, which produces large quantities of materials suitable for recycling and composting. The conclusions of a school waste study conducted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that schools in Minnesota generate half a pound of garbage per student per day. If Minnesota is representative of the nation, our public schools would produce about 14,500 tons of garbage per day. To put it in perspective, it’s relatively the amount of municipal waste generated in cities the size of Philadelphia or the amount eliminated in New York every day. In other words, too big to ignore.

About 24 percent of school waste is recyclable paper and cardboard, while 50 percent is food waste and non-recyclable paper, which can be composted. That’s nearly 75 percent of the school waste stream, which could be diverted from disposal.

Yet recycling is anything but obvious in our nation’s school districts. Based on an occasional survey of state recycling organizations, where the mandates exist and are enforced, it is estimated that between 75 and 100 percent of school districts implement some level of recycling program. However, few states have reported this type of success. Most often, without regulatory requirements or where enforcement of existing laws is lax, estimates indicate that retraining is done in 40 percent or less of schools.

Where recycling programs exist, schools are often rewarded for being exceptional, as if the idea were revolutionary. This is not to diminish the efforts of students, faculty and administration to launch the programs. Rather, it is a criticism of state education departments for not simply making retraining the expected norm, not the exception, just like the program itself.

Ironically, recycling is built into school curricula, even when no recycling is taking place in the district. Educators favor recycling as an easy tool to show how people can make a difference in improving the environment. While not part of official lesson plans, at a minimum, it is featured as special programming, often by outside sources like county staff or a nonprofit agency.

However, what should be of concern to stakeholders is how the concept of recycling is taught. Its influence on the implementation of financially viable community recycling programs may be greater than most of us realize.

When stakeholders emphasize the responsibility of schools to teach students to recycle, they also expect schools to save money. Therefore, they are sending the message of a beneficial classroom experience to budget cuts. This strongly held belief carries over to the way residents, i.e. taxpayers, view recycling services in general. Their willingness to pay for services is strongly influenced by the perception that the value of the products alone can cover all operational expenses and generate a profit for the material handler. These absolute types of ideas are hard to dispel. If they unwittingly come from the very classrooms that we hoped would advance the cause, it can have far-reaching effects.

Schools are powerful in transmitting social norms and beliefs. It is well demonstrated that enduring attitudes and principles can be firmly established in children as they enter adolescence. In this regard, we favor an education that cultivates positive environmental attitudes. Conversely, an education that presents only one side of a problem, regardless of the subject, can artificially distort and hamper individual assessment later. To avoid this, we need to look at the current school recycling message being sent.

Recycling is promoted in the classroom as a desirable behavior with great overall benefits, and rightly so. Unfortunately, the lesson usually ends there, like simplistic good versus evil. To add to the misperception, recycling activities can be started on a competitive basis with the aim of obtaining an immediate reward, such as a pizza party for the winning team. To complicate matters, these competitive programs tend to be short-lived.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores that the decision to recycle isn’t always black and white. This most certainly avoids any discussion that recycling has real and expected costs. Recycling is a complex issue that seldom provides immediate tangible benefits to the initial recycler. By teaching our children that recycling always gives a slice of pizza ‘at home’, without sharing the cost of pizza delivery, we begin to subtly perpetuate the expectation that recycling is free and provides recovery. monetary. When programs are temporary, instead of reinforcing long-term behaviors, retraining is presented as a recurring activity, and not worth the daily effort.

That paper, bottles, cans and food are thrown away in their schools, while being taught to conserve resources, is a juxtaposition that is difficult for a child to understand. This shows that school administrators and school boards do not understand the economics of recycling. The hypocrisy of school systems that teach, but don’t really value retraining, is a lesson that we as an industry should strongly oppose being taught.

The excuses for schools not to recycle are as universal as the belief that schools should promote the practice. On-call staff or contractors are often blamed for non-compliance. To ensure that source-sorted recyclables are not mixed with garbage and disposed of, we place performance criteria in collection contracts. Similar provisions could easily be part of commercial cleaning contracts. Likewise, when teachers are held to extraordinary standards, schools should be hampered by their inability to demand that supervisory staff meet this simple expectation.

Of course, the real reason recycling is lacking in schools is because it is not free. Yes, imagine that! The lesson of being an environmental steward comes at a cost, just like learning to swim or connect to the Internet. If we cannot get the educators, the role models of our children, to understand the economics of recycling, how can we hope to achieve our goal as an industry of solving this problem in community recycling programs? local ? If schools are unwilling to justify this cost to local taxpayers, those same taxpayers will never understand the cost of collecting their recyclables from the curb.

Michele Nestor is President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a market in transition.