In CMS, recycling's possible but not always practical

Recycling containers sit in classrooms in every Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school, and students at nearly half of them make the extra effort to dump leftover liquid from milk and juice cartons before tossing them into bins.

“The recycling systems are in place in the schools,” says Laurette Hall, environmental manager for Mecklenburg County Solid Waste Services, who describes the program as successful. “But we have to get more people to use them.”

With cooperation from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administration, county officials are expanding the 15-year-old school recycling program and encouraging greater participation by students, teachers and staff. Officials estimate the recycling rate in schools hovers at less than 20 percent, though it has increased some over the past few years.

All classrooms have bins for paper and cardboard, and each school has a designated recycling dumpster. In partnership with the Carton Council, which provided a grant as part of its national campaign to promote more recycling, containers were added over the past three years to an estimated 80 school cafeterias to recycle milk and juice cartons. A food waste collection program started two years ago at two elementary schools, Tuckaseegee and Allenbrook.

“Our goal is to have CMS (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools) be the first district in the national to have all schools in a food waste collection program,” says Jan Burlee, a senior county environmental specialist who works with the school program. “We're looking to do a behavior change and are concentrating on elementary and middle school students.”

As might be expected, food represents the largest percentage of the waste stream at schools; a 2011 county study of schools measured it at 38 percent. In response, the county is steadily expanding food waste collection, adding three schools this spring – Park Road Montessori, the Metro School and J.W. Grier Academy. Plans call for starting the program at nearly a dozen schools over the next year and more if officials receive a state grant. The food waste is collected by an organic farm in Gaston County.

“We want to move that needle,” says Burlee.

Private schools and public and private universities handle waste disposal and recycling separately. In addition to public schools, the county collects recycling materials from Central Piedmont Community College and city and county government buildings. In 2011, the recycling rate for those programs was 19 percent. Since 2000, the rate has largely remained less than 15 percent, but jumped from 14 percent in 2010 to 19 percent a year later, after the county introduced single-stream recycling and expanded the materials it accepts for recycling.