City Council Hearing on Recycling in NYC Schools!

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Today I testified at the hearing on recycling in NYC public schools. Here’s my testimony:

Hello. My name is Coquille Houshour. Thank you for inviting me to share my school recycling experience and my enthusiasm for creating successful recycling programs in all New York City Schools. I hope by sharing the process my students and I went through to start and run our program will be useful in understanding some of the obstacles encountered in creating and maintaining recycling programs in New York City schools. I am excited this hearing is taking place and optimistic about the positive changes it can bring.

I am about to complete my fifth year of teaching at Public School 19, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. After earning a degree in Environmental Studies and pursuing a career in the environment and human rights, I became a teacher through the New York City Teaching Fellows program.

When I entered my classroom for the first time, I was pleased to find a recycling bin – until I realized it had only been used for trash. I was amazed to learn there was no recycling in my school at all, not in the classrooms or the cafeteria. Through my Teaching Fellows network, I discovered this was commonplace in schools throughout the City.

I found this deeply disturbing. I grew up in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, which supply paper and wood to the entire country. My hometown, Roseburg Oregon, is the timber capital of the nation and home to the largest privately owned lumber company in the world. I know all too well the impacts over-harvesting can have on the quality of water, air and life.Understanding the environmental implications of one’s actions can be difficult. In a city environment, especially one as large as NYC, we can be especially removed from our environmental impact. As an educator, I feel an obligation to teach my students about their connection to the environment we all depend upon.

In this spirit, I taught a unit on forest ecology my second year at PS 19. When my students learned recycling saves trees, they asked me why we weren’t recycling at school. I didn’t have an answer. I told them we were supposed to be recycling and I don’t know why we’re not. So we decided to start a recycling program.

My students and I realized we couldn’t just put bins in classrooms and expect students and teachers to know what to do – or why it mattered. We had to change the culture of our school. We knew we needed to educate everyone about why and how to recycle. So, I contacted the Department of Sanitation for help, assuming there would be someone to help coordinate assemblies and speakers. I found out there was no one assigned to do this, but was provided free materials. Despite numerous attempts, I wasn’t able to find any support available through the Department of Education.

I was lucky to have a supportive Head Custodian who agreed to purchase the basic materials needed for our program with the understanding the students and I would do the rest. I recruited Lead Recycling classes in every grade and Lead Recyclers, who were responsible for educating everyone on their floor. They also perform daily pickups, tracking them and issuing recycling awards and summons for non-compliance. The students learned about a lot more than just how to recycle.

This model proved to be powerful and engaging. In fact, my student recyclers won the prestigious 2006 Golden Apple Super Recyclers Award, as well as grants from the Captain Planet Foundation, New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling, and Target. We were so proud! We thought we had made a super change to our school environment and were a huge success.

Then reality set in. We’ve had to tackle an ongoing battle with collection. I had made numerous phone calls to the Department of Sanitation to find out what our collection schedule was. When I discovered collection was curbside and only some days of the week, I tried to get the cleaners to take what students had collected outside on those days. But, they often refused and I had to do it myself. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a place to store our materials on non-collection days. When students missed a collection, the cleaners would throw all the paper recycling in the trash.

I finally made a connection with our Garage’s foreman and he said he’d do us a favor and mechanize our paper recycling. So, we dedicated two out of five dumpsters to paper recycling and we filled them every week. However, from what I gather a recycling truck is not picking it up, which means a garbage truck is. We also collect all of our milk cartons, glass, metal and plastic. But the cleaners are throwing it away. As a result, thousands of containers in recycling bags are being needlessly sent to the landfill every week.

Students see their recycling going into garbage dumpsters and they constantly ask me about it. What should I tell them?
And I think I should mention I have not been paid for any of the time I have put into our recycling program, which is the case of many teachers. Is it too much to ask this of our teachers and is it sustainable?

Recycling programs have the potential to be incredibly successful, but won’t until these obstacles are addressed and there is a comprehensive system that integrates all the necessary parties. Parents and teachers across New York City tell me they want to start programs, but need more support.

Amid mounting frustration, my colleague, Micki Josi, and I started a group called the New York City School Recycling Action Committee to build such support. We quickly generated interest from students, teachers and parents who have recycling programs or want to start them. There is a lot of energy for recycling our City right now and therefore an incredible opportunity to build momentum.

Our Committee identified our primary collective concerns, which we hope will be useful:

  • The DOE Chancellor’s Regulations were last updated in 1994. The Regulations are very ambitious, but are not being implemented.
  • Positions within the DOE should be created to assist schools in starting and maintaining programs and perform spot checks to assure compliance.
  • Positions focusing on school recycling are needed in the Council on the Environment. Educated and motivated students ensure their families recycle.
  • More programs and materials such as books, in-class programs, assemblies and speakers need to be made available to educate students and staff.
  • The DOE needs to issue a directive indicating which budget the expenses for recycling materials should come from. Teachers should not have to struggle with writing grants for basic supplies.
  • A waste management study needs to be conducted to have an accurate cost/income analysis of recycling in our schools. Paper recycling generates income, which could offset program costs. Less material sent to the landfills can reduce landfill expenses.
  • Relationships and responsibilities for recycling need to be established with school custodians and cleaners. Cleaners say they don’t have time in their schedules to collect materials. This needs to be addressed and then custodial staff needs to be held accountable.
  • A mechanized collection system needs to be implemented because current collection schedules are problematic and recycling cannot be stored inside schools because it’s a health and safety hazard.
  • We want school recycling to be an integral part of the Department of Sanitation’s 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan our PlaNYC 2030.
  • If we were to recycle the paper from New York City schools just next year, we could save around 400,000 trees. This makes one think differently about our City’s MillionTreesNYC plan. By the time our one million trees are planted, our schools could save four million.

Paolo Freire said, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which we deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

We don’t always do what’s best for our children, but we have an opportunity to do so with comprehensive school recycling programs. My students have shown an admirable dedication to recycling. In fact, they are crazy about it. It helps them make a measurable difference in a world where resources are over-burdened. Let’s help New York City’s children discover how their actions, and ours, can, indeed, make a difference. Let’s be cool. Let’s recycle at school!

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