It was recently reported that the state of California diverted about 66 percent of its waste from landfills in 2012. That's a wonderful accomplishment.
But Californians cannot "run up the flag of victory" on the solid waste front just yet. A new state goal of 75 percent diversion is looming for the year 2020. So how are we going to get there? Our schools are an important part of the overall strategy in helping to develop short-term programs, but also long-term attitudes about reducing our waste going to landfills.
The Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority, which manages the trash and recycling services for Danville, Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda, Walnut Creek and adjacent areas of unincorporated Contra Costa, started the Schools Waste Reduction and Recycling Program in 1999. Since then, lots of recycling bins have been placed on campuses; student waste reduction and recycling assemblies have been performed in multipurpose rooms; and waste has been reduced in classrooms and cafeterias. In fact, the waste authority's 4R's (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot) Schools' Program was recognized by the California Resource Recovery Association in 2011 with an award for Outstanding Schools Recycling Program.
But with the increasing waste reduction and recycling requirements by the State, the waste authority needs to step up its game even further. So over the past year the authority's focus in schools has been to enhance programs and services that net the "biggest bang for the buck." To ensure our schools maximized their participation in these various programs, the waste authority employed Ruth Abbe, a consultant specializing in schools programs and education.
Ruth began working as the waste authority's schools program coordinator in the fall of 2012. At that time the schools in the service area were only recycling around 18 percent of their waste. Last year, the emphasis was on aligning the recycling services offered at home with those at school. Special attention was placed on organics recycling; resulting in the expansion of on-site composting of food and landscape materials.
One of the most significant enhancements to the schools recycling program is the increase in the number of schools participating in the CCCSWA Food Recycling Project. This cutting-edge program collects commercially generated food discards from the service area and delivers them to East Bay Municipal Utilities District in Oakland. After arrival at EBMUD, the food waste is placed invery large holding tanks, where it is"anaerobically" digested. All this, results in the production of large quantities of methane gas, which is captured and burned to power a turbine, creating electricity used to power the water treatment facility. Excess electricity is put back into the grid.
In addition to renewable energy, compost-like material is also produced, which is used as a soil amendment for agricultural land applications.
The waste authority is excited about the inclusion of food-soiled paper and paper towels into some of the schools' Food Recycling programs; because those materials represent a significant portion of the waste stream. Right now, six schools are involved in the pilot project -- Burton Valley, Happy Valley and the Jewish Day School in Lafayette; and Las Lomas High and Valley Verde and Walnut Heights elementary schools in Walnut Creek.
All this effort has increased the recycling rate at area schools to 26 percent. That's quite a jump in just nine months. The waste authority hopes to do a lot more in the upcoming school year, including expanding school districts' participation in establishing diversion programs, increasing the number of schools recycling food and food-soiled paper, reducing trash service and associated costs at selected schools and holding waste reduction and recycling forums for teachers and custodial employees.
As most of us know, big changes don't happen overnight. But, the more we make waste diversion and recycling practices part of the everyday routine in our schools, the better the chances are those incremental improvements will last a lifetime for the students, whose efforts are key to seeing schools are successful in diverting waste from landfills.
For a list of resources and contacts referred to in this article, email Lois Courchaine at firstname.lastname@example.org.