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The Business of Waste management

Food, paper, electronics top the list for making money, saving the planet’s resources
Grand View Elementary School in California’s Manhattan Beach USD has cut its trash from 30 bags a day to two, reducing the number of garbage pickups and saving $4,700 a year.
Grand View Elementary School in California’s Manhattan Beach USD has cut its trash from 30 bags a day to two, reducing the number of garbage pickups and saving $4,700 a year.

One student generates about five pounds of waste in 180 days from simply drinking a carton of milk each day of the school year, according to the Carton Council, a national industry-sponsored recycling organization.

Add in glue bottles, old test papers and leftover lunch, and it’s no wonder schools are looking for ways to reduce both the amount of waste filling trash bins and the money spent to have it hauled away.

School waste reduction programs are getting a boost from environmental groups and also from state and municipal laws mandating recycling and composting. Schools also are cutting costs by buying less of the items most often wasted, thus reducing the need for trash disposal. Some districts are even making money from recycling.

Any school in the country can reduce waste and earn money by partnering with organizations such as TerraCycle, a nationwide recycling company based in New Jersey. Through a company fundraiser, schools can earn 2 cents per recycled item—such as drink pouches, glue bottles, pens and markers. And schools can make about $200 a month for collecting just drink pouches, says Albe Zakes, vice president of communications for TerraCycle, which also sells products made from recycled materials.

Grand View Elementary School in California’s Manhattan Beach USD has cut its trash from 30 bags a day to two, reducing the number of garbage pickups and saving $4,700 a year for its 750 students, while working with hauler Waste Management, says Principal Rhonda Steinberg.

The U.S. Department of Education named Grand View a Green Ribbon School in 2012 in recognition of its environmental efforts. “Districtwide, we save $800,000 a year by recycling, composting and conserving energy,” Steinberg says. “That’s $800,000 more to spend on educational materials and staff.”

Grand View sends parents digital notices instead of paper. Announcements now made on chalkboards, as hallway posters and paper signs have been eliminated. Compostable party goods and reusable tablecloths and beverage containers are used at school events, and brown paper towels are composted throughout the school.

Labor, equipment, fuel and landfill fees all contribute to the cost of trash disposal; districts and hauling companies save money when reducing the amount of trash being put in a landfill and by selling recyclable materials.

“More often than not, school officials are surprised to see how much waste they produce and how impactful a waste reduction program can be,” says Robert Kidwell, Waste Management’s manager of external and social media. “There’s an opportunity to reduce costs and in some cases get rebates.”

Getting started with lunch

The first step in reducing waste is determining the types of trash a school produces. A company like Waste Management, or a municipal waste department, can use that information to customize a program that will likely include composting food waste and recycling paper, plastic, glass and metals, Kidwell says.

Next comes buy-in from all stakeholders—including custodians, who will collect and store recyclable materials; dining workers, who know how much food is wasted; and the current hauler, whose contract might need to be renegotiated.

The national Carton Council encourages recycling of empty milk and juice cartons. The council—made up of all carton manufacturers in the United States—has found the average 500-student school disposes 40 pounds of liquid in cartons each day. Multiply that by all the schools in the country, and the impact on landfills and budgets (not to mention the smell and mess) can be significant. So students need a place to pour out remaining liquid and then recycle the cartons, says Derric Brown, vice president of sustainability for the Carton Council.

Schools can make the most immediate improvements with paper and cafeteria waste, such as bottles, cans and milk cartons, says Sabina Pendse, a sustainable communities program analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

She suggests school leaders set up cafeteria waste stations that include:

  • Clearly marked recycling bins placed in convenient locations
  • A place for solid food waste to be deposited for composting
  • A drain or bucket to pour liquids into (the containers can be recycled and the liquid is removed from the waste stream)

“If the system is set up properly, it’s easy to use and actually saves custodians time,” says Elisabeth Olson, recycling outreach and education coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

That agency and the EPA are just two groups with comprehensive guidelines for operating successful school waste reduction programs.

Wisconsin schools last year diverted from the landfill 16,000 pounds of food storage wrap, bread bags, paper towels and shrink-wrap on school supplies. Students recycled the materials at school and at home, Olson says.

California’s Grand View Elementary School touts Litterless Lunches—city-provided reusable lunch boxes that contain refillable water bottles and plastic food-storage containers. There are no baggies or foil. “If you teach children from the first time they eat lunch at school that it’s trash-free, it becomes second nature,” Principal Steinberg says.

Electronics, wastewater connection

Then there is electronics waste—Americans discard more than 2 million tons of obsolete electronics a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA recommends upgrading computers rather than replacing them; donating working electronics to other schools or community groups; and purchasing electronics from vendors that will collect and recycle them when they are replaced.

The EPA’s Plug-In to eCycling program lists electronics manufacturers and retailers that collect and safely recycle electronics—preventing toxic chemicals from leaching into groundwater and streams.

Schools can make money recycling electronics through companies such as TerraCycle, which provides rebates for laptops, tablets and e-readers, based on the condition of the devices. For example, a working laptop with a quad-four processor is worth $7.50. School administrators can usually partner with local stores that collect electronics and even provide rebates.

Recycling 1 million laptops saves the equivalent of the electricity used by more than 3,500 U.S. homes in a year, the EPA says. The recycling of 1 million cell phones can produce 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium.

Regina Whitmer is a freelance writer in New Jersey.