Net Zero Takes Aim at Recyclables

By Emma Hutchinson

The Net Zero Club at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, revamped our school’s recycling system.

We did it! You can too. Before you start, check out local recycling regulations, then:

  1. Go dumpster diving! Put on old clothes; sort through the contents of your school’s garbage and recycling dumpsters. On a tarp, empty the dumpster’s contents. Sort into piles: can/bottle recyclables, paper recyclables, materials that should go to the landfill, and compostables. Estimate and record the percentage each pile is of the dumpster’s total. This is an audit providing information on recyclables in trash cans and trash in recycling bins. Do several audits!
  2. Count bins! Record the number of recycling and garbage bins in each room throughout the building. Laminate a building map. Use three colors of small stickers, one color to each bin type: can/bottle recycling, paper recycling, and trash. Place stickers on your map reflecting the locations of all bins.
  3. Investigate! Investigate bin contamination and people’s behavior. Take the lid off recycling bins. Check out the contents. Are there half-eaten burritos in there? Interview faculty and students. Do they throw stuff away in the correct bin, or the nearest bin? Do they know what belongs in which bin? This is key to meeting the needs of people using the recycling system.
  4. Interview! Talk with the principal, custodial staff, food service staff, teachers and students. Address their concerns in your program.
  5. Make stations! We found the most effective way to reduce contamination, increase recycling and accommodate our school population’s needs was to create stations of bins. Each has a can/bottle recycling, paper recycling and garbage bin. We posted recycling/waste guidelines. Anyone throwing something away had to go to a station, with three options and the guidelines. The main idea: no stand-alone bins.

Position the stations. Use the Step #2 map; put one station per room and at intervals in the hallways, like busy intersections during passing periods.

Keep checking on the new recycling system. Repeat the audits to see if the system works. Pat yourself on the back for revamping your system and doing your part to change the world!

Did it work? At Fairview, we reduced contamination by 83% and increased recycling by over 40%.

Have patience, it took us about a year. Remember to get other hard working, passionate students and staff involved. Good luck!

About the author: Emma Hutchinson is a member of the Fairview Net Zero Club in Boulder, Colorado. The club was awarded an EPA President’s Environmental Youth Award in 2011 for their efforts to improve their school’s recycling program.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.