DCPS Schools Are Supposed to Recycle. At Least Three — Including Walls — Don’t.
Recycling in this bin, in Commons A, can’t be recycled when students put nonrecyclable waste in it. / Credits: Gabriel Kraemer
Walls has recycling bins in almost every classroom. Custodian Kenneth McCrory says the school is “all set” to recycle. Yet since the return of in-person instruction after the pandemic — now almost two years ago — none of Walls’s waste has been recycled.
Before the COVID pandemic, School Without Walls was recycling successfully, with bi-weekly recycling pickups funded by D.C.’s Department of General Services (DGS), McCrory said in an interview. However, when the pandemic began and students were sent home, the recycling program came to an abrupt halt.
According to McCrory, a general lack of knowledge about which bins are for trash, recycling and compost is preventing any recycling from taking place at School Without Walls because students put trash in recycling bins, which forces their contents to be thrown out.
“We have all the areas set up where we can have it sorted for the trash company to come pick it up,” he said. “We just need to get a team together so students know what goes in what area.”
While Brooke Hartman, the school conservation coordinator at DGS, said D.C. schools were “required to recycle the recyclable items described on the Mayor’s List of Recyclables and Compostables,” she noted an exception for “contaminated recycling.”
“Unfortunately, recycling contamination, which is when non-recyclable materials are mixed with recyclable materials, is a significant challenge for the recycling industry,” she said. “If recycling collections are contaminated by non-recyclable materials, those collections should be disposed of as trash.”
U.S. schools produce 530,000 tons of waste annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and around 80 percent of that waste is recyclable.
In 2013, the DCPS Recycles program was established as a partnership between DCPS and DGS to decrease waste from DCPS schools.
According to the DGS website for the program, “All DCPS schools are expected to sort and collect paper recyclables, mixed recyclables and non-recyclable trash.”
While Walls at least has the resources to start recycling, students and staff from both Jackson-Reed and Eastern High Schools reported that neither of those two schools have any recycling bins whatsoever.
Hartman said that while all schools should be recycling, “managing consistent school recycling programs can be challenging as students and staff change each year.”
She added that “schools can request supplies and support from DGS at any time, including supplies such as recycling bins and labels to depict the acceptable recyclable materials and recycling training for school staff.”
Information on the DGS website last updated in 2017 lists Walls, Jackson-Reed and Eastern among just 47 percent of DCPS schools that do recycle — even though none of the schools do today — suggesting a broad failure of the program to ensure recycling is consistently adopted throughout the system.
Hartman noted that her program was adapting to the challenge. “DGS has recently expanded our team to increase the recycling support we are able to provide to schools in the future.”
To move forward with the recycling program at Walls, “we [have to] start putting the word out,” McCrory said. “Everything is already in place: signs in the cafeteria telling you what goes where, which is trash and which is compost.”
All Walls needs to build a more sustainable future is for students to simply put everything in the right bins.