Failing Grade | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Failing Grade

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, paper, plastic and aluminum are generated in tons. But some are concerned that trash cans are bearing too much of the recyclables' weight.

Of the district's roughly 70 buildings, only 32 currently recycle paper. Just seven buildings (including the district's administration building in Oakland) recycle plastics, aluminum and other recyclable products.

"It's despicable," says Kevin May, a graduating senior at Squirrel Hill's Allderdice High School. "It sets a horrible example for students.

"Students buy cans at lunch and then throw them into the trash without thinking," adds May, who voiced his grievances to the school board at a May 18 public hearing. Recycling "should be a top priority, given global warming and our environmental problems."

District officials acknowledge that their recycling program gets a grade of "needs improvement." They say they plan on expanding the effort in the next school year.

"In terms of paper recycling, we're doing a pretty good job," says Chris Berdnik, the district's acting chief operations officer. But when it comes to recycling plastics and aluminum, "I think I would be the first to admit that we need to do a much better job. ... There's a lot more to do."

The district has been recycling paper since 1993, and has contracts with a number of paper-recycling companies, including Atlas Waste Paper Corp., on the South Side, and Abitibi Recycling, in Carnegie. Berdnik says the district recycled 176 tons of material in 2008, earning the district roughly $1,000. Over the summer, Berdnik says, the district plans to add 16 buildings to the number of sites recycling paper.

Still, recycling paper alone isn't enough, Berdnik says: "We would certainly like to get a more comprehensive program in place for the fall."

That will require the city's help.

Right now, the seven school buildings recycling paper, plastic, aluminum and other materials are serviced by city trucks. By the fall, city crews will add 13 more schools to their routes. The district does not yet have a formal recycling contract with the city, but Berdnik says such a partnership makes sense.

"We are definitely ... looking to partner with the city at every school if we can," he adds.

"That's certainly something that we'll consider," says Shawn Wigle, the city's recycling supervisor. "We'll have to figure out the logistics of everything."

Jen England, a community activist and parent of two city school students, says the school has a mixed record on environmental issues. She praises its recent decision to require bus carriers to install filters to clean diesel exhaust. But the lack of a comprehensive recycling program, she says, shows the district has a long way to go.

Recycling is "such a no-brainer," she says. "The district should start from an early age, teaching kids how to care for their environment."

"We have to do more," acknowledges school-board member Bill Isler. "We should be doing as much as we can to recycle all containers and step up our paper recycling."

According to Operations Supervisor Mark Boyd, recycling success hinges on individual schools and the teachers and administrators within them. In each school recycling teams are formed by the principal and an assigned recycling coordinator (often a science teacher). The teams then make sure that students and teachers are recycling as much as possible.

"Some schools work out better than others," says Boyd. Liberty, Dilworth and Mifflin elementary schools, for instance, "are stand-outs." Northview Heights elementary, by contrast, gave up its own recycling bin after 13 months -- because the school wasn't generating enough paper.

"If you have adults working hard to foster the right environment, then the kids will usually follow suit," Berdnik says.

But May, the Allderdice senior, says it may be the adults who need encouragement.

"I'm confident that if there is pressure from the student body and parents that [comprehensive recycling] will happen," he says. "I'm not extremely confident that it will happen on its own."

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