Acalanes district students are green champions
By Lou Fancher
When California mandated that entities in the commercial sector that includes school districts are required to implement recycling programs to meet waste reduction goals by 2020, Luis Batiza had a big problem.
“When the bills passed, everyone wanted to dump recycling on the custodians,” says Batiza, Acalanes Unified School District director of Food & Custodial Services. “Some schools have 60 recycling cans at up to 30 stations. Picking them up and changing bins daily is quite a bit of additional work.”
But incentives for perennially cash-challenged public school districts are undeniable: in addition to fulfilling an obligation to the state and modeling ecological awareness, there are cost savings.
“We pay a $250,000 service charge annually for garbage disposal, a fee based on pounds. If we reduce and divert that into compost, it will lower our bill,” says Batiza.
Instead of protest, Batiza realized cooperation and competition would solve the dilemma the mandate presented for his department.
“I found people who were passionate at each of the high schools about recycling. This had to be a joint effort. We had to have students, administration, teachers and custodians find middle ground.”
It wasn’t exactly easy — until students jumped on board.
“They formed green teams, eco teams, Leadership took it on — it was awesome how it brought student groups together,” he says.
A partnership with the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority’s RecycleSmart program brought sustainability manager Nancy Deming into the schools to implement green teams.
Batiza says Deming has built enthusiasm and empowered students to take charge. Monthly meetings with custodial staff in fall 2016 led to program rollouts at each of AUSD’s four high schools in early 2017.
At Campolindo in Moraga, science teacher Jane Kelson says the Leadership class and science department have worked to improve composting and recycling processes for years.
The passage of AB 1826 and AB 341 gave the school and district added momentum. Kelson, science teacher Tren Kauzer and students held meetings with Batiza and custodians. They walked the campus with Deming to identify student traffic patterns and planned three-station set-ups, including bins for trash, compost and recyclables.
“We surveyed classrooms and made a map of classrooms (that needed bins). We held student work parties to construct signage,” says Kelson.
Spearheaded by student Emily Tamkin, a video featuring teachers was made and shown in classrooms during the program’s rollout.
Kelson says the initiatives are working well. “The system was set up and run by many passionate students and teachers who are now out and about on campus being champions,” she says.
At Miramonte, Batiza says students were actually using their cars to transport compost and landfill to collection centers.
“We asked them to stop and explained that the custodians are the pickup people,” he says. Likewise, at Las Lomas, Thursdays found students at every bin on campus, directing their peers in proper usage.
Which is where competition enters and is a natural fit for students at the four schools who frequently engage in friendly rivalry. Usually it’s sports, arts or academics, but the “How Green is my High School?” contest had Acalanes, Campolindo, Miramonte, and Las Lomas squaring off to compete for cash prizes in recycling. The contest ended May 5.
Miramonte took the $5,000 first-place award with a 51 percent diversion rate (1.7 tons). A RecycleSmart bonus added $500 to their winnings. Las Lomas captured the $2,500 “Best School Spirit for Communication & Energy” award. Campolindo’s video and strategically located stations garnered $2,500 for “Best Strategy/Innovation for Sorting.”
Of course, the action isn’t only at AUSD schools. In the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, director of Maintenance and Operations Rob Greathouse says the recycling programs are 100 percent compliant.
In addition to working with Deming’s green team, Republic Services and Concord Disposal supplied compost training at no cost to kitchen staff, students and custodians.
Middle schools fall under the same mandate as high schools, and Greathouse says that although elementary schools have until 2019, they are already phasing in composting. But even though he anticipates eventual savings, Greathouse says there are expenses.
“Trash companies supplied the bins, but the state provided no funds for implementation and school districts must purchase compost bins and compostable bags that are 40 percent more expensive than traditional garbage bags.
Fortunately, students are enthusiastic.
“They see themselves as caretakers of their future planet,” says Greathouse. “By working to instill good recycling and composting practices now, their hope is it will become a habit for everyone.”