Looking around Palo Alto High School’s campus, you may notice the many clusters of trash, recycling and compost bins located near classrooms and placed around the Quad. However, even with these green options available for waste disposal, Paly is struggling to properly sort its waste. Due to the misplacement of trash into the recycling and compost bins, much of what could be recycled or composted ends up in the landfill, according to the senior president of the Paly Environmental Club.
“From the blue, green and black bins the recycling, compost and trash should all be streamed into the correct lanes,” senior Heather Strathearn, senior president of the Paly Environmental Club, said in an email. “This concept only fails when the bins are contaminated with waste that doesn’t belong. An example of this would be a banana peel in the recycling.”
Currently, the custodial staff uses clear plastic bags inside waste containers so that custodians can visibly see what kinds of trash ends up in each container. When they see food in a bag from the recycling bin, they have to throw the entire bag into the trash because the recyclables are contaminated.
Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said that the current waste management system has been in place for three years.
According to Berkson, the school does recycle a large amount of cardboard and paper waste collected from classrooms, but generally fails to recycle or compost waste collected in public receptacles.
“It [the current system] is not working, and I don’t know if it ever will,” Berkson said. “I won’t say the custodians have given up, but … it [the trash] is so mixed that we can’t turn it in divided [into waste, recycling and compost].”
The reason why students misplace trash could be as simple as the fact that the right bins are not always in the right places, according to sophomore Eric Foster.
“Usually all three bins aren’t in the same place and so I use whichever one is most convenient,” Foster said. “Even though I know it’s not a good idea, I don’t really have options. They should put all three bins everywhere.”
Freshman Isabelle Doughman agreed that convenience was her biggest priority when looking for a waste receptacle.
“I feel like it’s kind of hard to find trash cans,” Doughman said. “I can only find compost and recycling, and at that point I just put trash in wherever is convenient.”
Berkson attributed the poorly sorted waste to a lack of attention.
“I don’t think it [the problem] is that people don’t give a darn, I think it’s just that people don’t feel like thinking about it,” Berkson said. “It’s just imperfect. … The results of recycling are going to be seen 400 years from now, so people don’t see [the effects today] – they don’t get that instant satisfaction.”
Strathearn also attributed the failure of many students to correctly sort their trash to lack of awareness.
“I think students are not sorting their waste correctly out of convenience and ignorance,” Strathearn said. “This includes the convenience of location and convenience of thought. If someone has a banana peel but there isn’t a compost nearby, they probably will not compost it.”
Some people do not make conscious decisions when throwing away their waste even if compost, recycling and trash bins are easily accessible, Strathearn added.
“Even when there are all three bin types present, people often choose not to sort their waste because they either don’t know how to or have no motivation to,” Strathearn said.
According to Berkson, even if most people actively sort their waste, one person misplacing their trash can ruin the system.
“It’s hard… even if you have 80 percent of people buy into it [the program], you still have 20 percent of people who are contaminating these cans,” he said.
Strathearn said that her club is planning an outreach campaign to educate and encourage more people to sort their waste items.
“The Paly Environmental Club… is currently working on creating posters with information regarding what trash goes where,” Strathearn said. “Instead of having the usual cartoons, these posters will have real photos of typical trash Paly students have.”
Recycling bins should only contain paper, glass, metal and certain plastics and electronics, according to the City of Palo Alto’s Curbside Services website. Compost can include food scraps, yard waste and food-soiled paper. Other waste products must go into the garbage bins.
Berkson agreed that outreach to the school’s students will be important in improving waste disposal. He also emphasized the importance of instructing students in the proper way to sort waste from an early age.
“There’s a strong push [to educate students about the system] in elementary schools which, as kids grow up, gets stronger,” Berkson said. “Hopefully by the time they get here, it’s automatic.”
While Paly has definite room to improve in its recycling and composting rates, there are still many people who do take the time to find the correct bin.
“For the most part… I do try to get my stuff in the right bin as much as possible because it’s important, you know, and I can,” senior Jonathan Mackris said. “It’s not like it takes a lot of time away from my day.”
Senior Sarah Ohlson acknowledged the effectiveness of past outreach by Strathearn and the Environmental Club.
“I’ve gone out of my way a little bit on multiple occasions to make sure I get my trash in the right bin,” Ohlson said. “It [the outreach] is definitely something that has stuck with me.”
Berkson noted that, despite the issues with its waste system, the school has reduced its environmental footprint in other areas.
“I think as a green place, the biggest focus is energy,” Berkson said. “They’ve done really well on energy conservation, but the recycling hasn’t really taken off.”
Looking to the future, Strathearn urged students to increase their awareness of the impact they can have as individuals on the environment.
“For those who have no motivation to sort their trash, I encourage them to think about the consequences of their actions,” Strathearn said. “While throwing things in the trash is better than littering, we are not only running out of space in dumps, but we are wasting valuable resources. Paly’s compost and recycling potential represents a huge untapped resource to not only reduce waste, but to use waste for benefit.”