Lessons Learned from the Greenest Schools in Florida
Schools play a critical role in teaching our kids how to understand the world around them, including the importance of being good stewards of the planet. These lessons have the power to impact not just their students, but entire communities too. Showing us the full impact this can have is Palm Beach County School District in Florida who recently won Recycle Florida Today’s “Environmental Steward of the Year” award. We interviewed Lisa Toy, Sustainability & Recycling Coordinator for the School District of Palm Beach County (SDPBC), about her lessons learned supporting these award winning programs. In her role with the District’s Environmental & Conservation Services Department, Lisa supports 180 schools in the areas of waste reduction and recycling, energy and water conservation, green purchasing, alternative transportation and other topics of sustainability.
Carton Council (CC): What role do you see school sustainability and recycling programs playing in the greater recycling and sustainability movement in our country?
Lisa: I think school sustainability and recycling programs are important because they have the potential to impact not only the students, but also families, local residents, neighborhoods, and communities as a whole. The students become models for others to recycle right and conserve natural resources. What we’ve seen in our district is that green schools help to build a positive and supportive school climate. Enriching the school culture through environmental stewardship and teaching students to care about our planet is a win-win!
School programs also bring people together and help advance the community’s priorities. Partnerships have been imperative to the growth of green schools in our district and we are grateful to have had so many wonderful community partners over the years contribute through grant funding, volunteering or visiting schools as guest speakers. In addition, parents have been especially involved in green initiatives and in many cases, along with our teachers and students, are leading their schools to implement more sustainable practices like recycling, gardening and conserving energy.
CC: The School District recently won Recycle Florida Today’s “Environmental Steward of the Year.” Can you give us a couple examples of the School District’s award winning programs, including what you are doing to recycle food and beverage cartons?
Lisa: Recycling has increased by approximately 1,000 tons in the district over the past three years through a variety of programs. One example is a classroom mini-grant program to give money to schools for recycling activities, which eventually grew into the Green Champion program. Through the Green Champion program, Indian Pines Elementary School students were able to install eco-friendly mulch on their campus. At Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School, students weighed their trash to measure the effectiveness of the school’s recycling program.
A few years ago, SDPBC received a $5,000 grant from Carton Council to pilot a carton recycling program in seven schools that were not currently recycling cartons. Over five months, participating schools went from recycling zero cartons to recycling 159,729 cartons! On average, recycling increased by 27% at pilot schools, and the program diverted an average of 33,544 pounds of landfill/incinerator trash. That’s a significant contribution!
CC: What impact has the food and beverage carton recycling program had on the schools and students in the district?
Lisa: School administration report that their students are taking ownership of going green and feel empowered to protect the environment. And the students have so much fun recycling their cartons! It’s really awesome to see their enthusiasm and how quickly they learn the process to recycle cartons. It is also a program that involves a whole-school approach to recycling, bringing together school food service staff, custodial staff, school administration and of course teachers and students.
We are also seeing an impact on the school’s recycling rate, schools implementing the program have seen up to a 250% increase in recycling capacity by implementing a milk and juice carton recycling program.
CC: Why is it so important to teach students how to recycle and about recycling’s vital role in sustainability efforts?
Lisa: Like adults, students are more apt to recycle when they learn the how and the why. Teaching students how to recycle is important because recycling procedures vary so much across the country, and even across the world. When students are educated about how to recycle, they are able to participate in a more effective way, reducing contamination rates and increasing participation. Learning why we recycle and understanding why recycling is important in creating a sustainable future is a driving factor in the motivation to “do the right thing” for our planet.
When we talk about recycling, we are also teaching them that what they do makes a difference. The participatory nature of recycling makes it a fun and engaging activity for students to learn about natural resources and to make a direct impact on environmental sustainability. Students of any age can take charge creating awareness at school about recycling right, educating their peers and learning leadership skills along the way.
CC: What advice would you give other school districts or communities who want to start their own recycling programs, whether it’s carton recycling or other materials?
♻️Research, research, research! Find out which recycling hauling services are available in your area and also determine the types of materials that are recyclable in your area.
♻️Learn from others by reaching out to nearby communities or districts to find out about their recycling procedures.
♻️Visit the sites (schools, businesses etc.) to get a sense of the various layouts of recycling programs and then determine what would be feasible in terms of available space and bin placement for your schools.
♻️Conduct a waste audit to gather baseline data about how your school currently recycles and to set recycling education goals.
♻️Create a marketing and communications strategy to promote your new recycling program among people who need to support the program and help it grow.
CC: Now that you’ve been implementing carton recycling programs for a while. What are some practical day to day tips?
Lisa: One of the challenges to recycling milk cartons is that schools find their recycling toters have an odor from the milk residue. To combat this, we recommend power washing the toters after their weekly pickups to help reduce the smell. We also have a step-by-step checklist that was created based on feedback from the pilot schools. And lastly, I always tell schools, there is nothing wrong with starting small! If you are unsure of how things will go with your new recycling program, do a pilot first so that you can learn what works and what doesn’t work before implementing the program on a larger scale.
Thank you Lisa for sharing how recycling has impacted not only students in the district but also families, local residents, neighborhoods, and communities as a whole!
Did you know we have resources for schools to start their own school recycling programs? Check them out here.
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