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Efforts going to waste: Study shows schools' recycling goals not being met

How much of what's reusable is being recycled in metro-area schools? Solid estimates may be hard to come by, as school officials say close tabs aren't kept. However, a recent study of six Minneapolis-area schools offers a potential glimpse.

Ely Mercil empites a trash bin
Ely Mercil, a maintenance worker at West Fargo High School, empties a trash bin in the school commons. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

How much of what's reusable is being recycled in metro-area schools?

Solid estimates may be hard to come by, as school officials say close tabs aren't kept.

However, a recent study of six Minneapolis-area schools offers a potential glimpse. It found almost 80 percent of the garbage from two days in April could be composted or recycled.

That could make a major dent in the more than 240 tons of garbage produced daily by Minnesota schools, the study's authors said.

Recycling efforts vary across the Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead school districts - and in some cases from school to school in the same district.

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For example, some schools use reusable trays and silverware at lunch, but others regularly use paper plates and plastic containers by the boxful.

In a world where students are increasingly taught the importance of being good environmental stewards, the irony of schools not using reusable products or regularly throwing away tons of garbage that could be recycled isn't lost on teachers or school officials.

At Moorhead's Ellen Hopkins Elementary, the din from the lunchroom nears a dull roar while children stream in to eat lunch and blow off steam.

Donna Tvedt, who supervises food service at the school, points to the milk cartons and plastic serving cups of fruit and vegetables waiting to be picked up.

"There's only so much time allowed" to feed the 800 students, she said of the school's reliance on disposables.

Other factors weighing in on the preference for waste are inadequate space to serve, sanitary concerns and the cost of extra employees to serve and help recycle on the spot.

"I can totally understand, but we have to be practical," she said.

On the other side of the metro at South Elementary in West Fargo, the students are accustomed to their trays and metal silverware.

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Second-grade teacher Erin Petersen said the food being served might not get a lot of feedback, but if the dishwasher breaks down and lunch goes from plastic trays to Styrofoam, some of her students will speak up out of environmental concerns.

"I heard a couple of them say, 'These aren't good. These aren't good,' " Petersen said of the non-reusables.

Digging deep

In the recent study, "Digging Deep Through School Trash," researchers from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and other officials examined trash from six Hennepin County schools to determine how much was, and could be, recycled or composted.

Among the findings:

  • The schools had an average of .52 pounds of waste per person per day. By extrapolation, that means 483,520 pounds of waste are generated daily by the more than 2,000 K-12 public schools in Minnesota.
  • More than 78 percent of school waste materials could be diverted from trash to composting of organics, and recycling of paper and containers.
  • About 50 percent of school waste could be managed with an organics composting program.
  • The most prominent single material generated by schools was food waste, making up 23.9 percent of the total waste generated.
  • Recyclable paper - material from the three categories of cardboard, white office paper and mixed paper - accounted for 23.51 percent of total waste.
  • About 62.9 percent of what is thrown away is compostable or recyclable. A similar study has not been done in North Dakota, said Steve Tillotson, manager of the Department of Health's division of waste management.

Some recycling now

Pete Diemert, director of buildings and grounds for West Fargo schools, said his district recycles cardboard, white paper, newspaper, plastic bottles and aluminum.

Diemert estimates cardboard recycling at 85 percent, dropping to 50 percent to 75 percent for white paper and newspapers.

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Overall, he estimates 20 percent of what could be recycled in West Fargo schools is kept out of the landfill. Increasing that would mean hiring more workers.

"It would be a major increase in our labor," he said.

Fargo schools Business Manager Broc Lietz said the district recycles white paper, cardboard and aluminum and metal cans.

Deb Laber, director of nutrition services for Fargo schools, said meal service requires some use of paper and plastic products for speed, but more recycling is "workable" with more manpower, a place to store the material and a recycler to buy or pick up the material.

Moorhead schools recycle white office paper, outdated pieces of technology, and used engine oil, said Dan Bacon, director of property services.

Some cardboard, plastic bottles and aluminum cans are also recycled at the middle and high schools, assistant principals said.

"It's one of those projects we agree ought to happen, but we're struggling with resources," Bacon said of a more comprehensive recycling program.

At Ellen Hopkins, meanwhile, third-graders pitch in by collecting the school's white paper for recycling.

If Quinn Johnson, Alison Astrup and Briana Henniger are a barometer of student interest, they'd be happy to help expand the school's recycling efforts.

"We could start recycling metal and glass," Henniger said.

"And we want other kids to recycle," Astrup said.

"We could start doing cans or plastic," Johnson said.

"Otherwise they go to waste," Henniger chimed in.

"Everybody shouldn't be a litterbug in our world," Johnson said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Monday's the day

Gov. John Hoeven has declared Monday "North Dakota Recycles Day."

The day is meant to recognize the value of waste reduction, composting, reusing products and materials, and purchasing recycled products.

The North Dakota Solid Waste and Recycling Association put an educational recycling kit in every county last spring. The kits are available for use by schools and community groups. To find one, go to www.recyclend.org.

Ely Mercil empites a trash bin
Jodi Robinson, a nutrition technician at West Fargo High School, picks up unsold food packages in the school's cafeteria. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Related Topics: MOORHEADWEST FARGO
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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