Educating the public about recycling has been a hot topic in recent months ever since China put up their “Green Fence” and stopped taking many recyclable materials from the United States. At the core, it was motivated by contaminated material being imported from other countries including the United States. What followed was a large-scale push by the Chinese government to improve the cleanliness of their environment and put a cap on pollution. (For the heart-wrenching documentary that was rumored to have persuaded the government into taking action, watch “Plastic China.”) Municipalities and processors of recyclables in the U.S. have answered to the restrictions with large scale recycling education campaigns to meet the new standards.
In the past year, the City of Buffalo, who was stuck below the 34 percent national average recycling rate at 28 percent, decided to target their adolescent population in public schools as a central part of their citywide public initiative, “34 and More.” The Environmental Champions Program was born to instill the next generation of student leaders with a sense of environmental stewardship, and teach students how to recycle correctly while minimizing contamination. Sashti Balasundaram, who has since resigned from his position as Buffalo’s Recycling Coordinator to further his personal compost technology business We Radiate, took the lead on instituting the Environmental Champions Program. In the inaugural year, he’s introduced it across 32 Buffalo Public Schools, already distributing around 200 new curbside recycling totes. Ultimately, the Program follows a 5 step process that takes a hands-on approach to environmental education, stewardship and action for children and adults.
Step 1: Establish School Green Team and Identify Sustainability Coordinator
Step 1 and 2 happen in conjunction in the sense that they occur in the same time period. When Sashti received interest from one of Buffalo’s public schools, he set up a time to go out and meet those that would eventually act as the point of contact in the school’s implementation of the Champions Program. Typically, a parent, teacher, or administrator is either nominated and agrees to become the Sustainability Coordinator, or there is already an adult established in some role related to green activities (i.e. collecting recyclables with their students, or managing the compost bin, etc). What’s important is presenting them with an official title that demonstrates that they are responsible for furthering the Program in the city’s eyes. And for the students who make up the Green Team, respect comes from teachers and peers.
From Sashti’s experience, he witnessed the program function extremely well in the presence of a special education teachers and their classrooms. At certain schools, special needs students were actively engaged in collecting recycling from surrounding classrooms and bringing it to a central location for custodians making their job easier. “Once they began, they were committed to taking responsibility for the building’s recycling. They’d go classroom to classroom politely asking for it. Overall, it exercised their ability to communicate effectively, and was an educational opportunity to teach social and interpersonal skills.”
Step 2: Initial Site Visit
A “data request” would typically prelude Sashti’s site visit in order to gauge the number of classrooms, number of students, and receptacles located in each school space.
The site visit didn’t follow a rigid structure, but was in place more as a way to meet those interested and have a one on one dialogue on how the program would be implemented effectively. “It was a way to build relationships with the sustainability coordinator, principal, facilities manager, and any other stakeholders that would be involved,” said Sashti. The visit usually took around an hour, and Sashti consistently engaged in more listening than he would do speaking. “Many schools already had a ton of ideas to make their campus more environmentally-friendly or improve the quality of their recycling. They wanted to bounce them off of someone from the city, and understand what resources they could be provided to make their ideas a reality.”
Sashti followed up the visit with written recommendations, such as the importance of placing recycling and trash bins side-by-side to minimize mis-throws (contamination). Based on his observations, he could sometimes suggest to the school where they would be best served by placing a recycling bin. “It was important to keep it simple and get them started. After developing a game plan, we would focus on just one floor. Once they felt comfortable enough to extend it out, they could reach out to me.”
Step 3: Conduct Recycling Audit
As the key educational component of the Program, a recycling audit was chosen as the best way to involve and teach kids how to recycle properly through doing. Sashti developed an easy one-page template and curriculum (shown below) that allowed the Green Team to document the results and write down any relevant take-aways and recommendations for their school. After the audit, the data was shared between classrooms. Naturally, it became a friendly competition between students. “The audit was a framework for students to grade and observe themselves and their peers in other classrooms on how well they recycled. It rid them of feeling isolated,” observed Sashti. “Also, it supported qualitative and quantitative insights relating to recycling behavior.”
It was a hands-on approach to sorting materials into their correct bins, and the students quickly learned what was trash and what was recycling. “The intention was for this knowledge to motivate students, and empower them to take on a leadership role in educating their friends or family at home.”
Ideally the audit is conducted at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year to measure ongoing progress. The Sustainability Coordinator oversees it, and takes notes on the challenges/successes that were apparent in the school achieving a higher recycling rate. This only added another layer to inform the school on recycling best-practices.
Step 4: Develop Strategy and Awareness Campaign to Support the 3Rs
From the audit results, information was gathered on the problem materials to target in order to lower contamination, as well as materials that could be better captured and diverted using the three Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle). The Sustainability Coordinator and the Green Team met to develop a strategy to further the school’s overall green impact. Oftentimes, this involved those in charge reaching out to Sashti for tips.
As a result, Sashti saw an exciting variety of customized solutions come from the school’s environmental leaders, along with motivational tools to boost adult and student participation. At a few schools, milk cartons being thrown out in the cafeteria were deemed to be the simplest and most efficient way to enhancing recycling. The Green Team members took turns manning the waste bins during lunchtime in the cafeteria to assist other students in dumping out any leftover liquids and placing the cartons in the recycling receptacle.
Other strategies that came from the Program were assemblies to talk to the school as a whole on recycling initiatives, or the construction of outdoor gardens with worm compost bins to handle cafeteria food waste and raised beds. “It was inspiring to see the creative methods chosen by schools, and to witness their drive in getting them accomplished,” responded Sashti.
Step 5: Organize An “Earth Day” Event That Involves Your School Community
At the end of the school year, the City of Buffalo hosted a celebratory award ceremony, with Mayor Byron Brown, Buffalo Schools Superintendent, Dr. Kriner Cash, and Buffalo School Board President, Dr. Barbara Nevergold, in attendance to hand out honors and awards to the participating members of the Environmental Champions Program. The ceremony was an exciting way to legitimize the Program, and aim for higher waste reduction targets carrying into the next year. Overall, city officials hope to extend the environmental stewardship and knowledge outward to the surrounding communities, which has already begun. The new school year recently began, and Sashti has handed it off to city interns to continue with the second version of the program while making improvements. Buffalo will continue to see lasting benefits as they scale the Program up.