“The recycling battle will commence on May 3rd! Paper only! No candy, no bottles, only paper! The homeroom that wins gets a pizza party!” announced hand-drawn posters in the hallways of our school.
In the cafeteria, bins of recycled paper begat bragging rights. “Our homeroom has recycled seven bins of paper!” “Ours has recycled ten!” Fellow teachers tell me that, when they attempt to recycle paper, hands shoot up as students beg to relieve them of the sheets so they can recycle it in their particular homerooms.
Eight weeks earlier, while planning a ten-week curriculum on social entrepreneurship, I decided that environmental stewardship should be our focus.
I am just as guilty as the next teacher: Most days I printed out extra math packets and English worksheets. I’d bring home some paper each night to recycle, but still the school’s trash bins were heavy with reams.
Every year our school buys approximately 300 boxes of printing paper. That is 2,400 reams, or 1.2 million sheets of paper a year – the raw materials for tests, reading packets, mathematical worksheets and writing prompts.
This was my second semester co-teaching a class together with Youth Venture, a youth-focused organization-arm of the global non-profit Ashoka. Youth Venture focuses on supporting student lead social initiatives.
It was my hope that we might get a recycling initiative started.
Five years ago, Mayor Menino supported a Boston Public School system-wide paper recycling competition. Dubbed “RecycleMania,” the contest challenged schools to recycle paper over the course of three months. Almost four hundred thousand pounds of paper were recycled (the weight of sixteen bull elephants) in twelve weeks – a two hundred-fold increase from the previous year.
The contest was lauded as a huge success and the Boston School Superintendent optimistically declared, “The momentum generated by this contest will help us as we continue to accelerate our efforts to reduce waste and increase school-based recycling.”
But, by the next year, the private recycling company that had partnered with the program stopped its collection, and no alternative company was found to step in. The green and yellow dumpsters distributed to the schools were converted into canvases for graffiti artists and laboratories for teenage pyrotechnic experiments. The citywide effort has yet to be repeated.
Our school has attempted paper-recycling programs twice. Both efforts were quickly trashed. The first program, part of the original ill-fated citywide effort, disintegrated under arguments about where to place the large dumpsters to satisfy both the collecting trucks and the neighbors. A second attempt saw students ferrying boxes of paper to a neighboring school six blocks away. The effort expired from impracticality.
From the outset we sent the students out into the school to question their classmates and their teachers: “In what ways is the school not green?” “How could the school be more eco-friendly?” Reading over the responses the following week, recycling, or the lack thereof, was the dominant theme. So, our students set out to create a recycling program.
In the classroom, our students counted how much paper on average fit in a classroom-recycling bin. With calculators and equations they determined the total quantity of paper it would take to save a tree (8,000 sheets or twelve classroom sized bins).
Our students set a goal of saving four trees in three weeks.
On an overcast afternoon we walked to the shipping yards near our school to learn how our paper was recycled. We took a tour with the founder of the local recycling plant, the same company that had agreed to pick up our school’s paper.
Back at school, with hand-decorated bins in each 6th grade classroom and colorful posters in the halls, we began the competition.
Three weeks later our fourteen students stood on stage in front of their peers, their teachers and a few parents to present their results:
In just three weeks, with our 6th grade recyclers led the school to recycle 186 classroom-sized bins worth of paper. By my students reckoning, that’s roughly 135,000 sheets of paper, or about fifteen trees saved.
In the audience, unbeknownst to our students, was a special guest. She came on behalf of the City of Boston. Her role is to revitalize the city’s commitment to greening the Public School system.
At the end of our students’ presentation, she jumped on stage with a certificate in hand. She explained how she was leading the City’s renewed efforts to bring recycling into the public schools. With family, teachers and peers watching, she dubbed the class “Recycling Leaders of Boston”.
Back at school, the students proudly passed around the certificate and discussed challenges to continuing our recycling program.
We needed more recycling bins for the 7th and 8th grade. We needed more posters. We needed to teach the incoming class of 6th graders what to and not to recycle. Our students drafted letters to the principal, letters to the teachers with step-by step guides to recycling. They rewrote their letters to make them neat and centered, and they passed them around so the entire class could sign their name.
When the bell rang at the end of the day, the students gathered up their books and their pencils and their bags. And, they gathered up their first drafts and, while walking out the door, quietly tossed them in the blue recycling bins.