California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

"Innovations" Case Studies: School Recycling

Case Studies

Oak Grove Elementary School

Oak Grove Elementary School, located in Sebastopol, Calif., is part of the Oak Grove Union School District in Sonoma County. Oak Grove is a rural K-5 primary school with a population of 300 students and approximately 16 teachers. An additional seven staff members also serve Willowside Middle School.

Oak Grove’s efforts are led by one dedicated individual: Fred Hall, the lead custodian. As the program has developed, the local hauler, West Sonoma County Disposal (WSC Disposal), has assisted with transportation of recyclables to other business partners in the community. Enthusiastic support from staff, students, teachers, the community, and private partners ensured the program met and exceeded expectations.

The program has been wildly successful, achieving an 80 percent diversion rate. Oak Grove has gone from generating 32 to 4 cubic yards per month of landfill trash. The school started the program in 1992, not to save the Earth, but rather to save the school district money.

The school’s recycling program has had an impact on not just students and staff, but on the community as well. “Parents say they didn’t recycle much before but now they do,” according to Fred Hall. Oak Grove School has not only reached its own waste reduction goals, but it has also helped the community in the process.

Program Characteristics

Prior to Mr. Hall’s efforts, no recycling program existed at the school. Oak Grove began recycling by pulling cardboard, glass, and cans from regular school trash. Staff quickly found that separating commingled trash was extremely inefficient and consumed a great deal of time. It also led to contamination of the materials.

Oak Grove went in search of some new solutions. Staff developed a variety of recycling procedures and projects that Oak Grove is currently using. The programs summarized below developed over time as problems or needs arose.

Cafeteria Food. Unserved food is distributed to migrant workers, the homeless, a cancer survivor, and the after-school program. Food is boxed up after lunch and distributed by school staff. Oak Grove is solving a variety of tough recycling issues, and the school is also serving many community needs at the same time.

Drink Cartons. In the cafeteria both milk and juice cartons are separated and recycled. Oak Grove participates in a pilot program with the help of Clover (a local dairy) and WSC Disposal. The hauler comes to Oak Grove and takes the juice and milk cartons with the rest of the recyclables as needed. Empire Waste then gets the cartons from the West Sonoma County Disposal and recycles them to make paper and molded plastic products.

Yard Trimmings. Oak Grove grasscycles and maintains a compost pile for other yard wastes. This has not only cut waste and costs associated with handling and disposal of the grass clippings, it has cut maintenance costs associated with fertilization and watering. With the compost used as a soil additive, Oak Grove no longer uses synthetic fertilizers.

Mixed Recyclables. A set of four containers is placed in each room (including all classrooms) for compostable material, paper, mixed recyclables, and trash. Fourth-graders collect the containers from the rooms each day. The materials are then taken to one central point where custodial staff sorts the commingled materials.

The picture below illustrates how Oak Grove Elementary School has achieved 80 percent waste diversion through strong student participation in the school’s recycling program. (Source: Fred Hall.)

Picture showing Oak Grove Elementary students recycling.

Community Drop-Off. Oak Grove accepts recyclables from individuals in the community, including parents. Oak Grove sends those recyclables to WSC. The school also accepts redemption materials from the general public and adds these to their in-house collections. Oak Grove accepts plastic bags from students, faculty, and the community. These plastic bags go to Albertson’s grocery store, then to the corporate distribution center for recycling into bags and other items by a reprocessor.

Organic Materials. Oak Grove composts paper wastes, weeds, landscape prunings, and some food wastes. The school purchased a shredder and compost bins with grant funding. Students use the compost in outdoor raised garden plots. This provides students with hands-on experience and the ability to “close the loop” on campus.

Zero Water Runoff Program. To prevent waste water from running into the nearby stream, the school absorbs or reuses all water runoff on its campus. Oak Grove has developed an organized, efficient recycling program that covers most areas of source reduction and recycling in a school. The students are learning what can be recycled and developing the habit of recycling, and they are taking the lesson home.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

Oak Grove has been diverting more than 7 cubic yards of waste per week. The recycling program is cost-effective for the school and has actually cut costs in associated areas. Oak Grove receives no additional funding for its program, and it requires a minimal amount of staff time. The students provide about 12 to 15 hours of volunteer labor per week. Garbage rates have been reduced by $1,400 per year. The program generated $500 in income from marketing the recycled redemption materials.

Tips for Replication

  • Find a dedicated and motivated individual to initiate school recycling at a single site, but include a number of support people for ongoing operation.
  • Evaluate existing programs and waste stream composition. Determining targeted materials will depend on both the school’s waste stream as well as the resources available for staff and local recycling.
  • Look at creative partnerships with suppliers and local businesses to reduce costs through efficient transportation of recyclables.
  • Work closely with the custodial and kitchen staff members to address the types and volumes of waste and to get their input and assistance.

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West Contra Costa County

In late 1998 and early 1999, several students and staff approached the staff of West Contra Costa County Integrated Waste Management Authority regarding the establishment of recycling efforts at their schools. The authority staff, working towards meeting the requirements of the Integrated Waste Management Act (AB 939, Sher, Chapter 1095, Statutes of 1989 as amended [IWMA]), decided that a community-wide comprehensive program could be implemented.

Staff began by conducting initial research into current efforts, gathering hauler and school data, and looking for similar programs in other localities. By the spring of 1999, a draft proposal was ready to deliver to both the authority’s board and the West Contra Costa Unified School District board.

The program began with the participation of both agencies during summer 1999 and began operations in the fall of that year. While the realization of increased diversion and cost savings was a goal of both agencies, the program was also developed with the goal of mirroring the existing and new community curbside programs. Mirroring the residential and school recycling programs was expected to cause a significant increase in participation through the residential program.

While data is still preliminary, the mirror effect has been successful. In one community the district began school recycling prior to residential curbside service. The curbside participation rates have been significantly higher than anticipated by the hauler and the waste management authority.

Program Characteristics

The two waste haulers servicing the district, Richmond Sanitary Service (RSS) and East Bay Sanitary Service (EBSS), supplied containers similar to the household recycling bins that are used in their curbside operations. Because two haulers serve the district, the programs are slightly customized to each area. In schools served by RSS, a single commingled bin is used for all recyclables (paper and containers).

In schools served by EBSS, students have two bins, one for paper and the other for containers. Students place recyclables in a classroom bin(s) and then students or the teacher empty the bin into a central hallway or courtyard container. Additional bins are located outdoors for common areas of the school. The hauler then collects directly from these bins. Custodial staff deals with waste from non-classroom areas.

In secondary schools, students change classrooms every period. Recycling bins are placed in hallways outside the classrooms. In addition, a separate bin is provided for white paper collection. In developing the program, waste management authority staff recognized that custodial staff already had many responsibilities. Accordingly, the program was established to be the responsibility of waste producers (that is, students, faculty, and other staff) and not the custodial staff.

Student involvement varies depending on the grade level. In elementary schools, it is the responsibility of the teacher to assign students to empty the classroom bin into the central bin. In secondary schools, student environmental clubs are responsible for implementing and promoting the program. The existing program represents just the first stage of the overall program. The waste management authority’s plan includes the following phases:

  1. Paper and beverage containers (September 1999)
  2. Review and assessment (June 2000)
  3. Organics (September 2000)

Before initiating the organics program, the waste management authority staff plans to meet with school district kitchen staff to assess current food preparation and distribution methods. Recommendations will be made for reducing packaging, preventing waste, and reducing costs. The authority staff will then implement pilot programs at various schools before expanding the program districtwide. The educational component of the program includes the following activities and support to teachers:

  • Assemble curricula and resource materials
  • Coordinate a training workshop for teachers
  • Provide free worm composting kits for teachers
  • Offer free classroom presentations to teachers
  • Offer free field trips to the local recycling facilities
  • Offer free field trips to the community gardens
  • Assist and encourage faculty and students to form environmental clubs

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

Since the program has just recently begun, neither the school district nor the waste management authority can document actual costs for the program. The school district currently spends close to $800,000 a year for garbage collection. The goal in implementing the recycling program is to reduce garbage costs for the school district as well as to help the authority meet the 50 percent diversion goal. As a relatively new program, cost savings will not be realized until the 2000-2001 school year. Hopefully the efforts will yield a marginal reduction in garbage costs.

Tips for Replication

  • The key to replicating a districtwide program is working with all the potential stakeholders and including them in the initial development and decision-making process. This will lead to greater participation and increased efficiency.
  • Local haulers may be willing to participate by offering recycling containers as well as by assisting with collection and transportation of materials.

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UC Davis

The University of California at Davis is a public research institution in a suburban area. The campus covers 5,146 acres adjacent to the city of Davis. More than 24,000 students and 15,000 staff and faculty attend or work at UC Davis. UC Davis realized its recycling potential early on. When recycling efforts began, paper was the primary focus. UC Davis has shown a strong commitment to bringing its paper recycling program to a sustainable level. Now that it is established, the same commitment is going into beverage container recycling as well. The UC Davis recycling program is known as “R4.”

Program Characteristics

The R4 recycling program is an established program within the university’s facilities department, but is primarily staffed with students. While the program has been successful at increasing recycling rates, the R4 program staff have undertaken a number of other activities. The R4 program provides and implements a number of programs, procedures, and policies, including the following:

  • Establishment of a toner cartridge recycling program in which all departments were given the opportunity to return the used cartridges to the central storehouse for recycling.
  • UC Davis architects and engineers reduced the size of the blueprints sent to each department for review.
  • The UC Davis grounds division rents a tub grinder to turn green waste into mulch.
  • The UC Davis facilities services management is implementing a program to resell or recycle surplus and excess materials.

Facilities services management has standardized collection and emergency collection procedures for the campus. To help reduce waste produced on campus, the “mini trash bin” system has been implemented as part of R4. Each office desk is supplied with a large mixed paper collection receptacle and a small mini bin trash receptacle. Although only 140 mini bins have been installed so far in the pilot program, participants have enthusiastically accepted the change. Because of the pilot program’s success, R4 has a growing waiting list of departments wanting to be a part of the mini bin system.

Many other policies have also been implemented due to R4. The vice-chancellor issued a directive that recommends all campus departments purchase recycled-content paper. When a manufacturer was found selling low-quality recycled toner cartridges, R4 staff worked with the purchasing department to get a new high-quality supplier.

R4 staff also educated the campus departments about the newer higher-quality product to regain the market for recycled cartridges on campus. R4 provides educational activities and presentations about recycling to students, staff, and faculty at UC Davis.

Materials recovery estimates at UC Davis for 1999 are (in tons):

  • Mixed paper: 432.7
  • White paper: 17.5
  • Cardboard: 205.7
  • Beverage containers: 102
  • Metals: 447
  • Green waste: 988.4
  • Total diversion: 8,857
  • Total landfilled: 12,408
  • Total generation: 21,265
  • Overall diversion rate: 42 percent

Plans for the future include:

  1. Directing the payroll department to use recycled-content envelopes with glassine windows for the thousands of paychecks and earnings statements mailed monthly.
  2. Placing recycling bins in every dorm room.
  3. Providing a newsletter to campus staff about exciting recycling developments.
  4. Obtaining a sorting system that would enable R4 staff to sort and bale beverage containers on campus.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

The annual budget of the R4 program is about $150,000. The grounds, custodial, and solid waste departments fund the program out of their existing available budget. This amount is not set every year. These departments also absorb some costs on their own operations for recycling collections.

Money made annually from materials recycled comes to about $5,000-$10,000 for white paper, $20,000 for cardboard, and a minor amount from metals. Most of the other materials are given to the City of Davis. Avoided disposal costs are estimated at $221,555 annually, or about $25 a ton. However, this cost is difficult to calculate since UC Davis operates its own landfill. UC Davis accounts for waste services on a volumetric basis as part of its direct cost agreements.

Tips for Replication

  • Make sure you address contamination of materials in bins for recycling. Post labels directly on bins to clearly mark what goes in each container.
  • Make sure there is a location to rinse beverage containers, or at a minimum a container to dispose of fluids.
  • Hiring students as R4 staff helps to minimize costs and promote the program to the campus community.
  • Shredded paper must be kept separate, since it tends to clog the R4 collection equipment.

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Loyola Marymont University

Loyola Marymont University (LMU) is located in the Westchester area of Los Angeles. With a staff of 1,400 and a student population of 7,300, the university is a major employer in the area. The university began its recycling efforts in 1991 in response to the IWMA. Bill Stonecypher, the university’s environmental control coordinator, operates LMU’s recycling program. Staff has extensively studied the program. The university has achieved dramatic waste reduction and recycling accomplishments, and it is a good neighbor in the community.

According to Mr. Stonecypher, “Creating a sustainable society, it seems to me, will happen faster if first the small cities that are colleges and universities can provide enlightened examples of what could be done.” With this in mind, the university has become a model for efforts to reduce waste and recycle.

Program Characteristics

The LMU program is part of the department of operations and maintenance run by a full-time staff member supported by student staff. This creates a total staff equivalent of 3.75 full-time employees. In 1991, when the program began, LMU was disposing of 594 cubic yards of waste each week. Within just the first year the university was able to cut this amount to just 317 cubic yards per week.

The initial program focused on newsprint, white paper, cans, glass, and some plastics. By spring of 1994 the program expanded to include all paper grades, all plastics, and scrap metals. These additional materials helped to cut disposal further to just 283 cubic yards per week.

Collection containers are maintained in all classrooms and offices. Larger containers are located in hallways, common areas, and other places where waste is generated. Special types of containers are located in areas that deal with food, organic, or other waste types. The student staff members conduct most of the collection operations and help promote the program.

The program also has special collection efforts for used motor oil, toner cartridges, wood, auto batteries, and appliances. Staff of the department of operations and maintenance created special containers for recycling, providing a better way of measuring recycling activity on campus. Material collected in 1999 included (in tons):

  • Cardboard: 77.49
  • Newsprint: 77.45
  • Scrap metal: 29.84
  • Paper: 47.79
  • Aluminum: 1.47
  • Wood: 41.13
  • Glass: 39.45
  • Green waste: 214.15
  • HDPE plastic: 1.17
  • PET plastic: 2.88

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

One of the primary focuses of the LMU effort has been to ensure that the recycling program complements the bottom line of the university. Due to the dedicated efforts of the staff in recycling, waste reduction, recordkeeping, and accurate analysis, the program has been able to conservatively save the university more than $1.5 million in the last decade. Most of those savings were realized after the development of the program and the renegotiation of the waste hauler’s contract, which took three years.

Costs to operate the program are estimated at $72,000 annually. This covers the full-time staff member as well as the student labor and other program costs. Startup costs for equipment were approximately $100,000. The use of student labor has been critical to keeping costs down.

The program benefits the environment and prolongs landfill life, and it has had positive impacts within the university. The avoided disposal costs of the program are now almost $250,000 per year. By producing more than 300 tons of saleable material, the university has turned a former liability into an asset. The exact dollar figures for funds generated by rebate material were unavailable.

Tips for Replication

  • Negotiate contract provisions with the waste hauler that will support an effective recycling program.
  • Allow flexibility in pickup locations and avoid being restricted to an existing trash-focused design.
  • Negotiate billing contracts for waste services based upon the actual weight or volume of materials picked up for disposal. Contracts without this will not yield the potential savings from avoided disposal costs realized by reduction and recycling efforts.

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Los Angeles County

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works coordinates educational programs for local schools through the “Environmental Defenders” (elementary schools) and “Generation Earth” (secondary schools) programs. During the past three years, Generation Earth has been on the cutting edge of creating exciting and innovative educational opportunities for secondary students and teachers in Los Angeles County. The program is operated by TreePeople, a nonprofit organization in the Los Angeles area. The program provides a variety of resources to local schools, including:

  • Student action kits
  • Teacher’s action guide
  • Annual teacher summit
  • Field studies
  • Radio promotion on KISS-FM and Power 106
  • Toll-free hotline: 1-888-3UP-2YOU
  • Community events and youth conferences

In 1997, the “Battle of the Schools” competition was initiated as an education element of the Generation Earth program. Thirty-six schools participated in the first year. The winning school, Stephens Middle School, reduced disposal by more than 16 bins a month, from 64 to 48 bins per month. Through the program, Stephens now has an established glass, plastic, and aluminum recycling program along with a paper recovery program.

During the competition, Stephens Middle School recovered more than 5 tons of materials. In addition, Stephens is in the process of implementing a new plan to further reduce waste. The school plans to replace the disposable food trays with washable metal or plastic trays.

Program Characteristics

The competition began with a campaign on a local radio station (KISS-FM) that was a co-sponsor of the event. The messages aired from October 25th through December 3rd. The contest was completed on December 17, 1999, to allow for final computation of all school events.

Educational messages were designed to encourage listeners to call the station’s hotline for more information about the competition. The station received numerous calls from students, parents, teachers, and principals requesting a “Campus Waste Stream Reduction Kit” and asking how to participate in the “Battle of the Schools” competition.

Generation Earth staff made phone calls and sent faxes to teachers and school administrators from a list of previous campaigns such as teachers summits and “Rock the Earth.” As a result of the combined efforts, more than 70 schools requested waste stream reduction kits for the Battle of the Schools competition.

Up to now, the program has focused on public education as a way of increasing recycling efforts, but it has not quantified those efforts other than noting the number of schools that participated in the competition. The county will be working in the near future to begin quantifying diversion in order to show the impact of the education efforts on recycling.

Challenges and Opportunities

A challenge in implementing a school recycling program is including those responsible for maintaining the facilities. Without their cooperation, programs will fail or last for only a short period of time. One of the keys behind Stephens Middle School’s success is that they included facility personnel from the start.

Another possible obstacle that may arise when dealing with a school is the district purchasing policy that may have been in place for some time. In some cases districts have placed orders for materials years in advance. Individual schools that are allowed more autonomy in making purchasing decisions-such as buying recycled products and electing local service providers and recyclers-also benefit the waste reduction and materials recovery programs. Obtaining strong student participation presents a good opportunity for program success. Student participants must understand the operational aspects of school recycling programs, including:

  • Use of materials
  • Packaging reduction
  • Production and recycling of classroom waste
  • Recycling bins and disposal containers
  • Transportation of materials
  • The types of products created by recovered materials

As students feel an increased ownership in the program, participation increases and critical thinking skills are encouraged.

Tips for Replication

  • Involve a whole group of participants. Do not rely on one or two people. The larger the group, the more the participants will challenge themselves.
  • Keep the program simple.
  • Be sure to include facilities personnel.
  • Have a hook such as music to get students’ attention and to keep them interested.
  • Allow students to fully utilize their skills and abilities. Do not do it for them.

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Last updated: October 2, 2002
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