Schools’ new recycling program ‘fix’ gets an A for effort

By Steven Mihailovich

La Jolla public school students are beginning the academic year with a new recycling program that is being adopted at all 180 schools in the San Diego Unified School District. The program comes from Recycle Across America (RAA), a non-profit organization that has seen its recycling enhancements implemented by a number of Fortune 500 companies, in just the two short years of its existence.

More importantly for the cash-strapped school system, the $40,000 tab for the initiative was picked up by a donation from Kiehl’s, the New York-based company that has been making skin and hair products for 161 years.

The new recycling program expects to increase recycling capture rates at schools by 50 percent without adding extra recycling bins or new complicated procedures or awareness lessons to students. The hope is based on the simplest of solutions — standardized labels on recycling containers.

“The labels from RAA are great because they’re universal,” said Dayna Thompson, a parent volunteer for recycling and the Garden Club at Sprekels Elementary School. “They have pictures of what goes where. They make recycling effortless. It will definitely help students at the recycling cans without someone having to stand there and tell them ‘You need to put this item in that bin.’ ”

While RAA’s standardized labels have been applied at K-12 public schools in Washington D.C. and Minneapolis, as well as at companies like NBC/Universal TV and film studios, Procter and Gamble, Caterpillar, Disney Motion Pictures, Hallmark and Johns Hopkins University among others, RAA founder and executive director Michelle Hedlund believes the adoption of standardized labels by San Diego schools will have an impact beyond the county’s borders. As a Southern California native from Palos Verdes, Hedlund considers the addition of San Diego schools to be a win for the home team.

“(Environmental) subjects are much more top of mind in California,” said Hedlund, who now resides in Minnesota. “It’s part of the culture. What happens in California transmits to the rest of the country.”

San Diego learned about the RAA labels in June through the efforts of Janet Whited, recycling specialist for the school district. By means of a “glitch,” Whited was connected to Kiehl’s, which offered to pay for the 60,000 labels needed for the recycling bins at more than 400 schools in the county.

While the school system doesn’t monitor its recycling volumes, Whited said any improvement should be easily detected through the costs for hauling trash. The district spent $1.2 million last year and hopes to bring that total below $1 million.

“The only way I can gauge progress is that we’re recycling so much that we need to order more (recycling pickups),” Whited said. “My goal is to increase recycling, which is free, and to decrease our trash tipping, which has a cost.”

Kiehl’s joined the cause because it fit with the firm’s philanthropic profile, said company president Chris Salgardo.

The company primarily targets the environment, children’s issues, and HIV/AIDS with its charity. The company’s announcement coincided last week with the launch of its second freestanding store in the county at Westfield UTC.

“What I love about RAA is that it is teaching kids at an early age,” Salgardo said. “Their (solution) wasn’t overly complicated and it made sense. I see it all the time. People throw all their recyclables in one bin and think they’re helping. But it’s going to a landfill.”

The reason, said Hedlund, is because 60-70 percent of recyclable materials are rendered unusable when they become contaminated with trash. Even though recycling has become a mainstay in many American communities, capture rates haven’t improved in 15 years because of confusion at the bins.

“Schools can’t afford simple things like this,” Hedlund said. “They end up asking teachers or parents to help. The biggest opportunity is to find companies that want to be like Kiehl’s. They waved their wand and boom! San Diego is blanketed. If we get to the obvious things, we’ll be way ahead of the game.”

Parent volunteer Thompson said she’s already seen students picking up litter on campus and placing it in the appropriate recycle bin without supervision. “Recycling is something that everyone needs to be doing and something that’s easily done,” she said. “By starting at elementary schools, it’s something that can become second nature to a new generation.”

Why recycling fails

Only 30-40 percent of all items placed in recycling bins ever get a second chance, and that’s not counting the recyclable material that goes straight to the trash.

It gets worse. More than 25 percent of materials already sorted, cleaned and sold to manufacturers as “recycled,” ultimately end up in landfills because of contamination with garbage.

The reason is plain. If you’ve ever seen a handwritten sign with the word “Bottles” scrawled in ink on an 8½-by-11 sheet of paper taped to a recycling container, you have the answer. Does it mean plastic or glass bottles?

When you open the lid for guidance, you find two half-eaten donuts and a newspaper. The situation couldn’t be murkier.

The confusion at the bin affects the entire supply chain. Even though the infrastructure is already in place and no government subsidies are needed, the industry can’t meet consumer demand for recycled goods because they’re not readily available.

Hopefully, the new bin labeling system from Recycle Across America will help. The students and time will tell.

—S. Mihailovich

Did you know?

Below are listed other statistics that relegate any claims of success in most existing recycling programs as pure garbage and detail the lost opportunities of such failure.
  • Currently, less than 35 percent of households and less than 10 percent of businesses in the U.S. recycle.
  • Five plastic bottles (PET) provide enough recycled fiber to produce one square foot of carpet or to fill one ski jacket.
  • Recycling one ton of plastic bottles saves enough energy to power a two-person household for one year.
  • Americans throw enough aluminum into landfills every three months to build our nation’s entire commercial air fleet.
  • The average person has the opportunity to recycle more then 25,000 cans during his or her lifetime.
  • Recycling a single aluminum can saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours.
  • It requires 95 percent less energy and water to produce one recycled can that it does to manufacture a new can from virgin materials.
  • Americans throw away enough office paper each year to build a 12-foot high paper wall from Seattle to New York.
  • Recycling paper reduces the amount of air pollution produced in making paper by 95 percent.
  • Recycling a stack of newspapers three feet tall preserves one tree.
  • Making glass from recycled materials cuts related water pollution by 50 percent.
  • Recycling just one glass jar saves enough electricity to power an 11-watt CFL light bulb for 20 hours.
  • More than 28 billion glass bottles and jars end up in landfills every year - the equivalent of filling up two Empire State Buildings with glass every three weeks.
  • Recycling one ton of cardboard saves 46 gallons, or more than one barrel, of oil.
  • More than 90 percent of all products in the U.S. are shipped in corrugated boxes, totaling more than 400 billion square feet of cardboard.
  • Almost half of the food in the U.S. goes to waste - approximately 3,000 pounds every second.
  • Food scraps account for almost 12 percent of municipal solid waste in the U.S.
  • In 2007, 82 percent of all electronic waste such as TVs, cell phones, computers and so on, ended up in landfills - a total of 1.8 million tons.
  • In 1998, an estimated 20 million computers became obsolete within one year. By 2007, the amount doubled to 40 million computers.
  • If U.S. recycling levels reach 75 percent, it would be the equivalent of removing 50 millions cars from the roads each year.

The list was compiled from various sources (Environmental Protection Agency, National Safety Council, etc.) by Recycle Across America