Face the waste: Students sort school trash, learn about recycling

New London — High school students took a deep dive into school trash on Thursday, donning protective coveralls and gloves before tearing into dozens of awaiting garbage bags.

It wasn’t a clean exercise. The so-called trash audit at times involved picking through day-old lunch plates and salvaging recyclable or compostable material to be separated into any one of a dozen marked bins.

One student laughed as he picked up a plastic bottle stuck to a soggy plate of leftover rice and beans. Another student turned from the table she was working at with a hand on her stomach, a pained look on her face as if she were on the verge of getting sick.

The effort, involving about 120 students from the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, was focused on determining just how much the school district recycles and will serve as the basis of an analysis and recommendations for what the district can do with its waste in the future, said STEM teacher David Brown, who helped organize the effort.

The catalyst for the project came last year from STEM student Alexandria DeGunia, now a sophomore, who watched someone from the janitorial staff take a recycle bin and dump the contents into the garbage with other waste.

DeGunia said she was a bit stunned by the move and wondered, “Why are they mixing them? It’s supposed to be recycled. Why aren’t we recycling more?”

“I wanted to do something about it,” she said.

She later realized that in some cases the recycling bins in the schools were used as garbage bins, littered with material other than paper and plastic recyclables.

DeGunia on Thursday took on duties of logging weights of garbage bags before and after items were separated out, noting whether each color-coded bag was from a classroom, cafeteria, administrative office or bathroom at the STEM school or New London High School, which share a campus. The waste consisted of everything collected from the entire campus over the previous 24 hours.

DeGunia hopes the work will help influence future decision-making. “If we recycle more, there will be less trash. I think getting more recycling into the schools can actually influence the kids,” she said.

The findings of the audit are likely to be timely, since the city, as with other municipalities across the state, grapples with ways to cut the amount of municipal waste and boost recycling levels in the face of rising waste disposal fees. The school district, which does have recycling programs in place, is one of the largest contributors to the city’s waste stream.

A Solid Waste Task Force recently recommended to the City Council that the city buy larger recycling bins for residents and start treating waste as a utility, charging more for the larger contributors.

“For the students who have been asking 'why don’t we recycle more, why don’t we recycle more,' it gives them a chance to be part of the solution,” said STEM teacher Chuck Mulligan, whose class also participated in the audit Thursday.

The Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority, whose representatives also participated on Thursday, donated a dumpster, scales and other material for the day’s activities.

One of the early observations from Thursday’s exercise was, despite the district contracting for pickup of some of its food waste, there were large amounts of food found in the bags from the cafeteria.

“We’re throwing out a lot of food that can be composted,” said sophomore Bryson Doughty, the son of Solid Waste Management Task Force Chairman Bryan Doughty.

Doughty noted that by midmorning, there was more than 100 pounds of compostable material separated from the garbage. That weight included the new biodegradable plates being used by the school that were finding their way into the same garbage being sent to the incinerator.

At the end of the day, Doughty said the outcome will be a better education for the school and a roadmap for how to limit the amount of municipal waste with an increase in recycling and perhaps even find a place for some of the material that can be composted.

g.smith@theday.com

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