Since receiving new recycling bins last year, John Muir Middle School has made a number of improvements to the school's recycling program. The new bins allowed the school to place recycling containers in hallways and other common areas of the campus, and to have distinct containers for bottles and cans to be separated from paper.
A team of 5 students from Leif Asper's Leadership class takes responsibility for picking up all the paper on campus. Students pull bags of paper from classroom recycling bins and provide new liner bags each week. The work is a challenge- the campus of nearly 1000 students is a large space for a small team to cover in just 45 minutes- and the team does not have the tools it needs to make the job easy. One student explained, "The biggest problem is we have this flat cart so when we load it with bags of paper, they keep falling off over the sides when we take stuff to the recycling dumpster." Frustrated by this problem, the school has applied for a grant to get high-sided carts to help students and staff more efficiently move paper to the recycling dumpster.
Science teacher Alicia Skuce incorporates campus recycling into her class schedule. On Fridays, her science classes set out in teams to collect bottle and can recycling on campus, which they redeem for cash. Students, working in teams, bring the classroom and hallway containers to a central location where they transfer each load and replace liner bags as needed.
They bring full carts of recyclable materials back to an outdoor area adjacent to the classroom where they process each load by separating all the material types. They have buckets for aluminum cans, plastic bottles, bottle caps, liquids, compost, and garbage. Skuce provides durable, washable gloves instead of disposable ones to reinforce the waste reduction message while reducing the "ick-factor" of handling bottles and cans. Skuce adds that, "The students' favorite job is using the grabber sticks- we call them "gross stuff grabbers."This reduces the Ick factor too, because I instruct all students to only pick up stuff that isn't gross by hand and leave the gross stuff for the "gross stuff grabbers." Students love using the grabbers." Sorted materials are stored until the school has a large enough load to redeem.
Skuce uses the inevitable contaminiation of the recycling bins as an opportunity for her students to experiment. The students are testing the composting of food soiled papers from the recycling bins with plant trimmings from their garden in a large compost tumbler outside the classroom. Finished compost from the tumbler is used in a soil remediation study area on campus where students are growing a variety of plants.
One of the most common forbiden items that ends up in recycling bins is gable-topped paper milk cartons. However, students are discovering that the plastic lined milk cartons do not compost effectively. Skuce plans to use this finding to motivate students to continue to improve their system next year by reducing contamination in the recycling bins. Other challenges to address in the future include ongoing training of students and staff members alike- Leadership students noticed that the landfill-bound dumpster was nearly full of recyclable cardboard boxes and unopened/uneaten food from the kitchen and cafeteria.
In spite of the challenges, Muir students, teachers and staff are proud of their progress. Funds generated from the recycling program are used to purchase drought-tolerant and native plants and flowers to help beautify the campus, and students genuinely have fun taking on stewardship responsibilities on campus.
Muir's students are doing their best to live up to their school's namesake to continue John Muir's legacy of stewardship and conservation.