California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Environmental Ambassadors

San Juan Unified School District

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Grantee Information

Located in northeast Sacramento County, San Juan Unified School District (SJUSD) comprises more than 80 schools. Two elementary schools, one middle school, and three high schools participated in the grant program. The district was selected for the Environmental Ambassador Pilot Program because of its demonstrated commitment to developing a "green schools" program and its interest in expanding successes in this area to other resource conservation and waste diversion issues.

The district's planning department and curriculum and instruction unit worked together to support school-based resource conservation efforts and identify connections to instruction practices, such as use of the EIC Model. The district also had an energy and resource conservation plan team consisting of principals, teachers, custodians, and facility and district staff. There also appeared to be good support by the district for helping teachers develop new standards-based instructional programs related to resource conservation and waste diversion.

Education programs planned for this grant included:

  • Developing lessons for participating elementary, middle school, and high school students based on content and skills outlined in California's academic content standards by using environmental concepts and conservation topics.
  • Incorporating mathematics lessons as kindergarten students recycled bottles and cans. The funds raised from the recycling efforts were kept and used to open savings accounts at a local bank for each participating kindergarten student.
  • Incorporating English-language arts lessons as kindergarten students analyzed landfill construction practices and made predictions about their own on-site mock landfills.
  • Incorporating English-language arts lessons as high school students wrote persuasive essays about an individual's impact on and responsibility to the environment.

The individual EAPP teams used waste audits as the springboard for developing standards-based units. Students were then allowed to select a service-learning project with the focus on cleanup or conservation outreach. Student-driven clean-up efforts centered on Sacramento's local "Creek Week" and showcasing student artwork to promote a litter-free and recycling-conscious campus. Elementary student teams conducted classroom energy audits and, in turn, provided each classroom with an "Energy Catch Slip" that indicated the classroom's energy conservation and usage.

Opportunities and Obstacles

Developing a sustainable recycling program has been a major focus of the EAPP team. Since the team chose to pilot waste reduction programs at five schools (a sixth joined later), the district now faces the challenge of creating a sustainable program district-wide. Following are several actual or desired results that will help this program to succeed long-term:

  • The schools have successfully demonstrated their ability to involve and motivate students and staff to recycle effectively. Students and staff want to recycle and are pressing for recycling opportunities, and their desire is reflected in the success of this pilot program.
  • This program demonstrated that recycling will thrive when the necessary infrastructure is provided. That infrastructure includes in-classroom bins, a cart to transport the recyclables, and an external recycling dumpster for placement of materials. Each campus had the flexibility to tailor its recycling program to the unique physical and operational characteristics of the campus. That was all achieved while maintaining a consistent recycling approach that was applied at elementary, middle, and high school campuses.
  • The district should be able to realize a cost savings due to reduced garbage service levels.
  • The district has not yet addressed the need for a consistent district-wide contract with a waste hauler or recycler for consistent recycling service. Consistent recycling service is needed to promote a sustainable program.
  • Maintenance and Operations and custodial staff support the recycling efforts with staff time and resources but are stretched very thin, and these recycling efforts can be perceived as additional tasks. With a team of students removing paper or other recyclables from all the classrooms in each school weekly, custodial responsibilities could be reduced and the efforts would be mutually beneficial.

To continue the successes and sustain the waste diversion programs currently underway, the district should consider taking the following actions:

  • Secure a contract with a waste hauler or recycler to provide a consistent district-wide recycling program to all district facilities. This could entail negotiating a new waste hauling contract with a waste service provider that includes consistent recycling service and economic incentives that encourage decreased waste disposal. Another option is to consider separate district-wide recycling and waste hauling contracts. Once consistent opportunities are established at each school, individual campuses can tailor the program to meet their own needs. For example: In some cases student classes or environmental groups can operate a recycling program, and in other cases the custodian should be responsible. A program that is simple and easy to participate in is important to ensure success.
  • Adopt a district-wide waste reduction policy which includes purchasing recycled-content products.
  • Adopt standard operating procedures for the waste reduction programs, including ongoing education and training for staff.
  • Establish a team (as part of job duties) to be responsible for overseeing the waste and recycling needs of the district. Potential members should include, but are not limited to, a contract manager, an accountant, a maintenance and operations lead, and a recycling lead. Some tasks for consideration by this team would be expanding the recycling program; monitoring of service levels to maximize the cost of service (for example, does a school still need waste service five days a week if that school is recycling?); and identifying ways to reduce contamination and litter.

Establishing support from the highest district level is critical to integrating recycling into policy and standard operating procedures.

Diversion Successes

The district is commended for its efforts to increase waste diversion during the timeframe of the EAPP Program. During the grant period, the SJUSD successfully implemented waste reduction programs at five schools. These included: Cameron Ranch Elementary, Cottage Elementary, Mira Loma High School, and Mesa Verde High School. Jonas Salk Middle  School joined at the end of the grant period.

Prior to implementation of the pilot program, most schools in the district did not have any recycling service. Some very notable exceptions were recycling efforts at Mesa Verde and Mira Loma High Schools where very devoted teachers established recycling programs that have been highly successful for many years. Although these well established efforts have been highly successful, it is recommended that consistent district-wide implementation of a recycling program will be more sustainable.

Recycling should be part of the district's operating procedures and should not require isolated and extra focus by a few highly dedicated individuals. Additionally, consistent implementation of a recycling program across all grade levels will help to establish recycling as a standard practice for students as they transition to different schools.

The district's disposal service is provided regularly for the 10 months of the traditional school year and is then reduced to an as-needed or on-call basis for the two summer months and Christmas break. Based on 2000/2001 figures, the annual cost of garbage service was approximately $230,000 per year. Notably, this bill is paid at the district level so disposal costs are transparent to the individual schools and facilities.

The district worked with its current waste service provider to add recycling service to the pilot schools in the program. This was a commingled recycling program that accepted all fiber materials (cardboard, white paper, newspaper, magazines, mixed paper, etc.), beverage containers, tin cans, and other recyclables. It is important to note that standard service with this provider did not include recycling service.

Schools had an option of receiving a 3- or 4-cubic-yard recycling bin at an additional service cost. The pilot schools' recycling bins were generally serviced one time per week. The district should realize cost savings by reducing waste service levels (i.e., from service five times per week to three times per week) and increasing recycling levels. One individual from each school site or facility should be responsible for monitoring waste and recycling service levels to ensure maximum efficiency of the program.

Additionally, the district currently participates in oil and battery recycling (in the Transportation Department), toner cartridge recycling (in the Printing Department), and grasscycling (done by the department responsible for turf management). Small quantities of beverage containers are also collected and recycled unofficially by custodial staff, school clubs, and even neighbors of the school. By the spring of 2005, changes in the district's waste diversion program included bulk ordering of paper copies for the elementary schools to help minimize cost and reduce waste.

This report is probably missing a number of diversion activities occurring in this district due largely to the fact that the district is so large. With over 80 schools and numerous other facilities, it is highly recommended that the district utilize its influence to negotiate a contract with a waste hauler or recycler that promotes resource conservation. A district policy clearly defining recycling and waste reduction as a directive should help this SJUSD to establish a sustainable program for many years to come.


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Last updated: September 24, 2013
Office of Education and the Environment
Contact: (916) 341-6769