Friday, April 06, 2012

Rethinking Waste, Green Schools Alliance Challenges K-12 Schools to Recycle

On April 2nd, thousands of students, in schools from Connecticut to California, will aim to "recycle right" for four weeks during the 2012 Green Cup Recycle Challenge, a student-driven recycling competition for K-12 schools sponsored by the non-profit Green Schools Alliance. During the Challenge, schools compete to improve recycling compliance, decrease contamination, raise awareness about consumption, and celebrate waste reduction.

The Langley School in McLean, Va., became a “Recycling Champion” last year after it won the Green Cup Recycle Challenge, with zero contamination in 85 percent of its bins. “Our middle schoolers' leadership to increase recycling and reduce trash has been inspiring, and we have seen real change as a result of their work,” said Kathleen Smith, Langley’s Director of Academics. Ryan McKinney, Langley’s science teacher, who helped students quantify and track results, said the Challenge generated excitement around recycling.

The unique approach is purposely designed to be easy, to maximize participation and provide instant feedback. Students don't have to measure quantity or volume of waste. They simply need to ensure that trash goes into trash bins and recycling goes into recycling bins, monitor bins for proper sorting, and record the data on the Challenge website each week. The process helps to identify contamination "hot spots" where recycling can be improved through better signage or bin placement.
“We don’t have big corporate sponsors, and we’re not giving away any prize money,” said Rita Gerharz, a teacher at the Bullis school in Potomac, Md. Gerharz worked with the Green Schools Alliance to create the Green Cup Recycle Challenge in 2011. “We developed this Challenge to get away from the idea that filling recycling bins with more stuff was desirable.”

At the core of the matter was a simple question: Are people recycling properly? “If you drop something in the wrong bin, like food in a paper recycling bin, you’ve possibly contaminated a lot of valuable material that may not be recyclable anymore,” said Gerharz. “So the Challenge is about getting people to “recycle right,” and to build awareness about the impacts of simple everyday actions.” Fiona Caulfield, a 4th grader at Bullis, said she learned a lot about proper sorting of recyclables during the Challenge. “It made me feel like a better person,” she said.

Like the Green Cup Energy Challenge, the student-run Recycle Challenge creates a friendly rivalry between schools that motivates everyone to do better. Students can compare their results with other schools across the country online. Points are awarded for recycling and trash bins that are properly sorted. Schools that earn the most points are honored as "Recycling Champions," with special recognition also going to schools that are "Most Improved."

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