Ask a public school student what should be done to protect the environment and you will likely hear, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” Ask them to draw a poster for Earth Day and the three “R’s” will make their way onto the page along with the triangular recycling symbol, an image of the globe, and a lush green field with multi-colored flowers growing under a bright blue sky.
While reducing and reusing are more self-explanatory, recycling is confusing. Delve deeper into the differences between what is “recyclable” and what you can actually place into the single-stream bin and you will find both students and adults puzzled. To help increase residential recycling rates and help residents understand what is and is not recyclable in the city, Austin Resource Recovery is running the Austin Recycles Games challenge.
The students and administration at Clint Small Middle School are working to get District 8, represented by Council Member Ellen Troxclair, out of second place and into first by the time the results are announced on Earth Day, April 22.
Youth education programs such as Generation Zero and teacher-initiated programs, as well as Austin Independent School District’s policy to provide recycling at all AISD schools, have resulted in general knowledge about the importance of proper recycling. Marlo Malott, Small’s Green Tech Academy director, states that “there is an awareness of recycling coming in from elementary school that you wouldn’t have seen ten years ago.”
“The key is consistency. When students start to learn about recycling in elementary school, then it is easier to maintain practices,” says environmental science teacher Christopher Brooks, adding “we are trying to take it to the next level.” He notes that students have been doing waste audits at Small since the early 2000’s, and the school was one of the first middle schools in AISD to add compost recovery. As part of a service learning component in the curriculum, Brooks assigns his classes to empty the recycling bins from all of the school’s classrooms and offices into the larger dumpster. “You can preach at people to [recycle],” he says “but we are trying to model the behavior.” Brooks sets a clear expectation for his students, “You are the role model; do the right thing.”
The initiative to reduce landfill waste has gained momentum. Amanda Gilroy, the school’s cafeteria manager, oversaw a transition from disposable to reusable plates during lunch. Small piloted the shift on “Go Green Fridays.” There was a fear that washing dishes would increase staffing costs, but that has not been the case. This year, the plates are the rule, not the exception.
“I order fewer disposable plates.” Gilroy says, which saves the school money.
By instilling waste diversion activities into the curriculum and everyday practice, Small Middle School is cultivating environmental stewards. Students are encouraged to recognize problems, come up with possible solutions and implement them. A student noticed that there were no recycling or compost bins in an area of the school where students often eat lunch. A few months later a three-bin recycling disposal station was installed for which the student acquired all of the materials from the community and hand-built.
“It reaches critical mass when people start to do the things they see,” Christopher Brooks states.
The students at Small Middle School are taking their practices from school and influencing their families at home. With a generation of stewards emerging, Austin’s zero-waste goal will undoubtedly be reached by 2040…if not sooner.