Assumptions about recycling lead to wasted efforts

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Photo by Ella Leviyeva

At Townsend Harris, if you encourage students to recycle their garbage, it’s not uncommon for them to look at you quizzically and ask, “Do they really recycle here or is it all just for show?” It turns out that Townsend Harris does recycle, but it’s the tendency of students and staff to mix trash with recyclables that makes the process less successful than it could be.

According to the New York Department of Sanitation, New York City schools are required by law to recycle. Foreman Hector Benitez said,  “We do recycle here at Townsend Harris. Every classroom and office has bins, as well as the cafeteria.”

Some students claim that recycling efforts are a waste because it all goes to the same place. This, however, is only the case when students and staff ignore the distinctions between recycling bins and trash bins.

“There are times when students put conventional garbage in recycling bins, and if sanitation doesn’t accept it, then we have to throw it out,” continued Mr. Benitez. “We’re not allowed to go through the garbage, says the Department of Sanitation. Once it’s mixed, we have to throw it away.”

Foreman Luis Perez said, “People should be more informed about recycling.”

Students expressed similar sentiments.

Melinda Harbhajan, junior, said, “I recycle here, and at home too. I think we could do a better job and not be lazy. We have enough bins, I’d think it would be easy.”

Khalid Abdin, senior, said, “Kids don’t respect it enough…I’d take the steps if my colleagues did too. I’m sure that everyone would.”

Rohan Sukhdeo, freshman, said, “I see that during lunch people don’t separate their milk cartons from trash. It might be laziness. It takes time and energy.”

President of Students for the Preservation of the Earth (SPE) and junior Joshua Merai said, “If people say they are too lazy to recycle, then they better be doing something else to preserve the planet.”

Katherine Yan, English teacher and advisor of SPE, said, “I think a deterrent is if they look into the bin and if the previous person put food in there, they feel like they don’t have to. I try to recycle in the building, but it’s easier in the offices than in the classroom because it’s not second nature to some of these kids. We can put signs on the can, or have different types of receptacles.”

Sam Schraeder, junior, said, “There’s no reason not to if it’s right next to the trash can.”

Mario Vasquez, foreman, said, “I’d say about 75% [do recycle]. But some people just don’t care. It’s possible, but people have to be willing.”

Students cited confusion about what bins to use as a reason for not recycling. To clear it up, Mr. Benitez said, “In the cafeteria we only have for bottles and cans, and in classrooms, only for paper.”

Freshman Syeda Hassan said, “People don’t understand what’s supposed to be where. There should be signs on the cans. Everyone uses the ones in the halls that are easier.”

Katie Wu, sophomore, said, “We should make it more paper specific, not just a trash can, but an appropriately sized box to encourage people to put only paper in it.”

People also offered other suggestions to make recycling a more universal part of Townsend Harris life.

Elina Niyazov, freshman, said, “We should have teachers enforce it.”

“For the most part, I don’t see too many signs, maybe we could put more posters up reminding people to recycle,” said Joshua Martinez, junior.

“Having more bins where there’s more students…like on each floor the bins are only in the middle but not anywhere else,” suggested Anna Parashchak, senior.

Mareena George, senior, said, “I think the only way you could get them to recycle is extra credit.”

“Recycling in our school is confusing because the bins are not labeled clearly. Most people here have intentions of recycling, but because they are not sure what is really recyclable, most don’t,” said senior Merin Varghese.

Mr. Benitez said, “We used to label them…the sanitation department provides labels.”

Organizations like Recycle Across America are introducing standardized labels for recycling bins across the country to reduce confusion. The Environmental Advancement Foundation makes the case for recycling in schools, saying, “Eliminate the confusion, redundancy and ‘re-inventing of the wheel’ that is currently happening at schools across the country which is causing unnecessary financial, material, water and energy waste (one solution we are introducing is society-wide standardized labels for recycling bins).”

In an article from the New York Times, titled “The Recycling Reflex,” by David Bornstein, it states, “Standardized labels alone aren’t sufficient; they have to be incorporated in education and training. But they are a necessary linchpin to establish consistent communications across all media. If the images on the e-mails, fliers, posters, banner ads, TV commercials, billboards and news shows match the labels on the bins, the message gets reinforced. Over time, it becomes ingrained.”

Recycling is a group effort, and it will take more than just one person to make its effects noticeable. But Elizabeth Yakubova, junior, said, “If everyone else were to recycle, I would too.”