R.I. Public Schools Flunk Recycling Test

By FRANK CARINI

The amount of recyclables, most notably copy paper and plastic bottles, carelessly tossed in the trash by Rhode Island’s public schools and needlessly buried in the ever-shrinking — and quite stinky — Central Landfill is appalling.

Homeowners, it seems, are the only ones expected — or encouraged — to follow the state’s mandatory recycling laws. Due to ignorance and lack of enforcement, most Rhode Island residents who live in apartment buildings are essentially forced not to recycle. Few restaurants and many other business fail to recycle properly — a lack of accountability allows the problem to continue.

It’s a shame so few schools in the state’s 36 public school districts offer students much in the way of recycling or composting education. Far too many districts make no attempt to recycle. Some even use the blue and green bins as trash buckets.

Providence’s Nathanael Greene Middle School, for example, lines these clearly marked recycling bins with plastic bags labeled with a “City of Providence” seal, according to longtime school librarian Sarah Morenon. These bags end up in a school Dumpster.

“We’re teaching the students that the blue and green bins mean nothing,” Morenon said. “Most rooms only have green and blue bins for trash. The metal trash bins have disappeared.”

Rhode Island’s 282 public schools generate a massive amount of recyclable material — much of which is never used again, as little of it is separated before it ends up in the back of a truck.

“There’s 40 schools in Providence and huge palettes of paper,” Morenon said. “Almost none of it gets recycled.”

Morenon should know; she’s been the Nathanael Greene Middle School’s de facto recycling coordinator since the mid-1990s. She briefly tried being responsible for the entire building, but with 900-plus students and 80-plus teachers the task would make anyone neurotic. She now only obsesses about recycling properly in the school’s library.

She brings home the bottles and cans she collects in blue bins and adds them to the stash she leaves curbside. She dumps the paper she collects in the library’s green bins in one of the six green totes the school provides for paper recycling. Morenon often finds Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic bottles and other misplaced items in these totes, which collect only a fraction of the recyclable paper generated at the Chalkstone Avenue school.

“The importance of recycling needs to be institutionalized,” Morenon said. “It needs to be part of the school’s culture. It needs to be part of the curriculum … part of the science unit early on in education.”

It’s not. Most likely because it doesn’t appear on a standardized test. This lack of recycling awareness and missed teaching opportunity, however, isn’t isolated to the Nathanael Greene Middle School. It’s a problem statewide, despite the fact that in 1986 Rhode Island became the first state to pass mandatory recycling legislation.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has no system in place to monitor the recycling efforts of Rhode Island’s 36 school districts or offer guidance on how to do it. That responsibility falls to each district, according to Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the commissioner’s office.

New department regulations do require recycling during school construction. For example, “all new construction and major reconstruction projects shall meet applicable local ordinances for recycling space and provide space within the building that is dedicated to the separation, collection, and storage of materials for recycling, including, at a minimum, paper (white ledger and mixed), cardboard, glass, plastics, aluminum cans, and metals,” according to regulation 1.04-3 Miscellaneous Construction Requirements.

Meanwhile, shoddy recycling practices continue at the state’s many old schools that haven’t experienced substantial renovations during the past four years.

At last month’s Sustainable School Summit, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist addressed the attendees. She said, “Sustainable schools, or green schools, are excellent environments for students and great investments for our communities. Green schools provide plenty of light and excellent air circulation and climate control. They are high-quality learning environments. Green schools save taxpayer dollars — through economies during construction and through long-term savings on energy and utility costs. Green schools can also serve as models for student explorations in science, ecology, engineering and other career and technical fields.”

This exploration in science and ecology, and teaching students the importance of recycling, shouldn’t be the sole domain of fancy, LEED-certified, newly built or remodeled public schools. These practices would work just as well at the 82-year-old Nathanael Greene Middle School.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.