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Issues Of The Environment: Recycling Improving In Washtenaw County Schools

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The amount of waste generated in schools per academic year can be staggering.  Fortunately, schools in Washtenaw County seek to change that.  This week, we talk with Randy Trent, director of operations for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, about introducing recycling programs in local schools.


   *   Schools generate a lot of waste, about half a pound a day per student.   A recent study showed that 78% of school waste could be diverted from the landfill with robust recycling programs. 

   *   While some schools in Washtenaw County have local funding for recycling, there are eight districts in the county that do not.  A Michigan state grant in 2015 allowed a pilot effort to launch recycling at one school in each unfunded district.  Sighting success the first year, in 2016 Washtenaw County took over the school recycling programs countywide, and, this year, the county is providing funds for six additional schools to begin recycling.

Recycling is New to Most Washtenaw County Schools

For most residents of Washtenaw County, recycling a good portion of home and office waste has been the norm for many years.  Almost all households in Washtenaw County have access to some form of municipal recycling and most people participate. 

As the 2016-17 gets underway, how much is being recycled at local schools?  Surprisingly, not much.  On the whole, public schools in Washtenaw County have not had recycling programs in place.  Randy Trent, Director of Operations for the Washtenaw County Intermediate School District, is working hard to change that.  He mentioned that of the nine districts that belong to the Washtenaw County Intermediate School District, until last year only one, Ann Arbor Public Schools, had the funding to support recycling.  (Ann Arbor Public Schools instituted classroom recycling in 2012, expanding the program to all AAPS schools following a student-led recycling effort at Huron High School).

The other eight districts in the WISD (Chelsea School District, Dexter Community Schools, Lincoln Consolidated Schools, Manchester Community Schools, Milan Area Schools, Saline Area Schools, Whitmore Lake Public Schools, and Ypsilanti Community Schools), have not prioritized recycling, so local funding is not available.  Within these districts, there are a handful of schools and classrooms that have done some level of recycling with the help of teachers, students, and parent volunteers, but without funding, even where the will to recycle exists, more expansive programs have not been possible.

How Much Waste Do Schools Generate?

Processing the waste from schools can be costly to the district.  Recent data estimates that schools throw out about a pound of waste per student per day. 

Data on school generated waste in Michigan has not been widely studied.  However, Minnesota, a state with a similar population, conducted a recent statewide assessment of waste from schools, and the results are likely to comparable to Michigan. 

Almost 150 schools or school districts from 57 of Minnesota’s 88 counties participated in a survey as part of this research effort.  A representative sample of 21 schools that participated in the survey also received site visits that assessed their recycling programs and evaluated 12 months of waste hauling invoices.  The study also analyzed 47 schools provided three months’ worth of waste hauling invoices to assess how traditional recycling and organics recycling affect costs at schools.

Key findings

   *   Over 78% of school waste could be diverted from the trash to organics composting and container/paper recycling collection programs.

   *   The schools had an average per capita total waste generation of just over half a pound per day. Recyclable paper (cardboard, white office paper, and mixed paper) accounted for 23.5% of the total waste generated by schools.

   *   The single most common material generated by schools was food waste—23.9% of the total waste generated.

   *   50% of school waste could be managed via organics composting programs that accept food waste, liquids, and nonrecyclable paper.

Is School Recycling Cost Effective?

   *   Many schools have an opportunity to reduce hauling costs by seeking competitive bids from waste haulers on a more frequent or routine basis.

   *   In most cases, having a high-performing recycling program reduces net waste hauling costs for schools since most parts of the state have a lower cost per cubic yard for recyclables than for trash.

   *   Organics recycling is typically more expensive per cubic yard than traditional recyclables, but less expensive than trash.  However, some of the gains in hauling costs are offset by costs for compostable bags and food service items.  So, some schools with organics recycling programs experienced net cost savings while others saw small increases in costs.

   *   Integrating recycling best practices in schools will increase the effectiveness of recycling programs. In most cases, the improved performance will be cost neutral or save the school money.

Barriers to Recycling in Local Schools


With cost sighted as the greatest barrier to widespread recycling in the local schools, it is interesting to note that the Minnesota study found that recycling could actually reduce the cost of waste removal.  Of course, the costs/savings for recycling are likely tied to the commodities markets for waste paper, glass, metal, etc... With food and paper being the primary recyclable materials in schools, it seems unlikely that the program could hope to pay for itself at the moment as neither of these items generates a profit.  Still, if the cost for hauling the recyclable material is less than for the landfilled material, some savings could be realized.

For example as of August 2016, recycled cardboard was selling for anywhere between $60-350/ton.  Figures for the cost per ton for municipal garbage were more difficult to locate, but it seems the average is about $50-70/ton for 2016.

Michigan public school budgets are tight, and it is unlikely that recycling will soon be a priority in districts that have trouble affording to educate students. For now, any recycling in schools must find funding from outside the district’s funding structure.

State Grant for Recycling in 2015-16 (Last year)

Title: Washtenaw County School Recycling and Education Program

Grant Award: $32,000.00

Local Grant Match: $24,627.58

Grant Lead: Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD)

Grant Partners: Recycle Ann Arbor, The Ecology Center, Washtenaw County Office of the Water Resources Commissioner, Waste Management

Project Description: The Ann Arbor Public Schools have a vibrant recycling program operating in all of the schools within its district.  Other school districts outside of Ann Arbor have less developed recycling collection and educational programs.  This grant will establish recycling systems in eight public schools in various school districts throughout Washtenaw County (outside of Ann Arbor).  The goal is to test a variety of collection and educational trainings and events within these schools, in order to identify “best practices” for ultimate expansion into all of the public schools within Washtenaw County on a permanent basis.  A related goal is to model the success of this program to other school districts in the state, providing a comprehensive “toolkit” of programs, services, practices and opportunities that can be replicated in rural, suburban and urban school settings throughout Michigan. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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