The Weber County School District announced that it’s pulling the plug on a big part of its district-wide recycling initiative.
Schools and administrative offices will continue to collect paper and cardboard, but will no longer include aluminum cans or plastics in the mix. The reason is simple. It’s become too expensive. Budgets are tight and the district wants to use its money on student programs. The district says it will focus on using more energy-efficient lighting and less paper.
Most Utah schools teach students in the classroom about environmental initiatives, and some do it by example; the most visible way is putting containers in the hallways to collect recyclables.
Whether or not Weber County intended it as a learning exercise, by suspending a major portion of its recycling effort it is teaching students a valuable lesson: Environmental initiatives must be economically viable or they will not be sustainable.
Throwing paper and used containers in a recycling bin is a feel-good exercise, and its intended goal is to better protect the environment. For a fee, many Utah communities provide curbside pickup of recyclables. But that is only part of the equation.
A bigger part is what happens to the material after a person walks away from the bin. Someone has to collect it, separate it, clean it, crush it, bundle it and possibly ship it somewhere for re-use or re-manufacture. That is an expensive process. To complete the equation, a consumer must purchase an item made from the recycled material.
Unfortunately, the dollar amount used to recycle goods sometimes outweighs the benefits to recycling companies. According to USA Today reporting from 2017, the recycling industry is suffering several blows that depress the value of recyclable goods and also make the processes to extract recovered waste products more costly. The double threat has put the recycling industry in a tight spot.
Some of the issue rests with global markets, with countries less willing to buy imported waste. But other reasons fall closer to home. As communities expand recycling programs, the number of uneducated recyclers increases. More unrecyclable waste makes its way through facilities, carrying the potential to stall operations or clog machines.
Of course, better recycling education — what goes in which bin — should be a goal for cities and organizations, but recycling isn't the only way to cut back on waste.
Statistics show that the average American generates a little more than 1,600 pounds of waste per year. One practical step for responsible consumers is to simply use less.
School districts can continue the trend of moving operations online or using digital versions of handouts and worksheets. Grocery shoppers can utilize reusable bags. A host of individual actions may relieve the burden felt by cities and their recycling programs.
Recycling — from dropping recyclables in bins to using products that contain recycled material — is one way to help the environment. But until management systems can implement more efficient processes or global trade policy swings in a way that favors exported waste, it is not reasonable to expect any entity, especially public schools, to lose money in the process.