This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 Harker Quarterly.
In April, Harker instituted a new schoolwide program that separates waste into “wet” and “dry” categories. The initiative coincides with a system rolled out by the city of San Jose and Republic Services, which manages waste for commercial users in the area.
Labeled cans have popped up on every campus, along with signs indicating what kinds of waste go in each can. “Wet” waste includes food waste and used paper goods, such as napkins, tissues and paper food trays. “Dry” waste includes drink containers, clean paper and cardboard, and noncompostable food containers.
In addition to compliance with the city of San Jose and Republic Services, this initiative will help “divert as much of our trash toward recycling as possible,” said Diana Moss, upper school Spanish teacher and a member of Harker’s Green Committee. Making this a schoolwide effort will help ensure that students graduating from one campus to the next will be familiar with Harker’s trash procedures, she added.
“This contributes in a significant way to our green efforts,” said Kate Schafer, upper school science teacher and Green Committee member. “First, we’re making it possible for Republic Services to do their job of diverting material from the landfill, but it also gives us the possibility of assessing our production of waste and reducing it in the future through various efforts such as on-site composting, reduction in use of non-recyclable containers, etc.”
It may also have some financial benefits in the longer term. “Going forward, Harker could actually reduce its output from the campus by separating our white paper from compostable paper, and we could actually start giving that to a different vendor,” said committee member and upper school science teacher Jeff Sutton. “We can start composting. If we get good at it, we could take our own food waste and compost it into compost soil and then, ultimately, save money because we won’t need as many pickups per week.”
The labeled cans were set up during spring break in classrooms and strategic spots on each campus. Green Committee members have been working to get the word out. Lower school students were informed about the rollout during educational assemblies, and on April 22 – celebrated around the world as Earth Day – faculty and staff wore green and blue to show their support of the wet/ dry program. Meanwhile, middle school students took quizzes about the wet and dry classifications during their advisories. Upper school students were informed of the new procedures at the April 14 morning school meeting with a special video and presentation. A bulletin board display in the lunch area, featuring amusing photos of costumed students, also reminds everyone of the proper way to dispose of their trash.
So far, Schafer says, the roll out has been “a big success. Across as many campuses as we are and as many trash cans as we have, [when you] try to change a system, there’s a lot of components to it, there’s a lot of facilities-level changes that need to be made, a lot of education. I think the education part of it is ongoing and will continue to be.”
“On the whole, the community has really gotten behind our efforts,” said Green Committee member Margaret Huntley, a middle school math teacher. “People are pleased to have the opportunity to divert waste from landfill, particularly through the new composting collection. In particular, many of the students returning from exchange trips to Japan and China better understand the importance of protecting our resources and environment.”
Educating the community on the importance of adhering to the new program has been and remains a priority. “We see this new system as a journey, not something with a hard deadline,” said Huntley.
“The faculty and staff have been extremely cooperative and open to the new program,” said Robyn Stone, committee member and preschool STEM specialist. “They have asked great questions and come up with systems and strategies for wet/dry reclamation in their own classrooms and offices.” Preschool students have even discovered one additional benefit of the program: “Our preschoolers enjoy sorting out their lunch and snack items into ‘green’ and ‘blue’ bins,” Stone added.
Harker’s dedication to introducing the wet/ dry system effectively and on such a large scale has already received recognition from Republic Services, which gave Harker a recycling award in May. “We’ve had really a lot of positive feedback from Republic Services,” said Schafer. “They’re just so impressed with how serious we are about wanting to do this correctly.”
The wet/dry program is just one piece of the Green Committee’s – and the school’s – continued dedication to making Harker as environmentally responsible as possible. The lower and middle schools began adopting the upper school’s policy of eliminating the use of paper cups among students, faculty and staff. “We removed all paper cups from grades 4 and 5. They need to bring their own water bottles or use the water fountains,” said lower school art teacher Gerry-louise Robinson, another committee member. “After-school time has removed [paper] cups too.”
Paper cup usage at the middle school also has been “greatly reduced,” Huntley said, and the hope is that it will be eliminated on campus in the near future. In February, the middle school’s Green Club began a program to recycle Capri Sun drink containers by using a service called TerraCycle, which collects and recycles materials that are difficult to recycle. The money generated from this effort was donated to environmental programs.
At the preschool, much of the kitchen’s food waste has been converted into food for worms and rabbits at the campus’ farm area. In addition, “The facilities crew has diligently saved all of the schoolyard green waste in a compost pile, which has been rotting nicely all year,” Stone said. “We used that compost together with compost created by our worm colony in our garden beds.”
Perhaps the biggest recent step, however, was the Green Committee’s application to get Harker certified as a Green Business by the Bay Area Green Business Program. Getting certified was originally part of a longer-term plan, but the committee made the decision to apply after it realized how much progress it had made. “At the beginning of the year, we said we wanted to apply some time in the next three years,” said Schafer. “It turned out that we were a lot closer than we realized and there’s a lot of momentum right now to make change and a lot of people are really on board with trying to accomplish this.”
In addition to improved waste management, Sutton cited other improvements such as using more efficient light bulbs, and reducing the amount of printed material by putting information online and increasing electronic communications.
Although the committee had not yet heard from the California Green Business Program at press time, Schafer pointed out that the decision to apply was itself an indicator of just how far Harker has come in its green efforts thus far. “It may indeed take us another two years to have checked off all those boxes. We’ll have to see, but it’s a huge step,” she said.