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California District Cleans Up Its Waste

Success stories from districts across the nation


This year the Union School District in San Jose, Calif., was looking to save some money by going green. The 4,500-student district sought to cut down on waste disposal costs and surplus property storage while also helping to improve the environment and educate children. The district wanted to expand its recycling program, but it also wanted to ensure that its surplus property—such as no-longer-used equipment—could be reused rather than end up in landfills or district warehouses.



The city of San Jose approached the district with the idea of beginning a “Zero Waste” partnership. “The goal is to reduce the amount of trash so that we are not filling up [landfills], and to either recycle or compost the waste from the school district,” says Nan Wojcik, the district’s chief financial officer. The district and the city worked together to purchase compostable plates and utensils made out of corn or sugar cane to replace the cafeterias’ regular supplies. By composting these items along with food waste, the district turns what used to be garbage into usable soil, thus saving landfill space.

Taking Out the Trash

The city of San Jose, coordinating the program through its waste management department, spent $50,000 supplying recycling education materials and waste containers to the district. It also covered the cost differential of using the compostable utensils.

To promote recycling, the city helped conduct school assemblies and provided educational materials to teach students about recycling and how to separate the components of their trash for recycling bins. Wojcik says the program is an important opportunity to educate children about how recycling and composting works and its importance to environmental stewardship.

So far the experiment appears to be working. Preliminary estimates indicate that the school is recycling about half of its waste—about 30 percent more than it did previously, says Christine Wolter, program manager of Integrated Waste Management for the city of San Jose.

Wojcik says that the district has seen a dramatic decrease in the volume of trash sent to landfills. Although the exact amount is unclear because the program is new, Wolter estimates that the district could save up to $20,000 in waste disposal costs this school year.

Auctions for Change

In addition to recycling its trash, the district also has focused on recycling its surplus property—excess or out-of-date inventory such as old vehicles, kitchen equipment, or other items sitting in warehouses or storage yards. For that, the district enlisted the help of San Francisco-based InterSchola, which manages surplus property auctions on behalf of about 350 districts, mostly in California.

The company places the items on eBay for auction and, once the goods are purchased, arranges for the items to be shipped or picked up. It then sends the proceeds to the school district. Melissa Rich, InterSchola president, says that the firm helps free up district employees who would otherwise bear the burden of arranging the auctions themselves.

Clean Rewards

Since last school year the Union School District has received $7,000 for its general fund from the sale of surplus property. The move has also freed up 10 percent of the district’s warehouse space. Previously, the district tried with mixed success to sell surplus items at time-consuming districtrun, in-person auctions.

The Union School District hopes that its Zero Waste program and surplus property sales will keep freeing up landfill space—and cash.

Kevin Butler is a contributing writer for District Administration.