Years ago when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency devised methods for keeping track of trash and recyclables, it seemed logical to measure waste and recyclables in tons. It also seemed logical to compare recycling tonnage to disposal tonnage, to get a recycling rate. The goal in New Jersey is a recycling rate of 60%. Is this the best way to measure? Not necessarily for schools.

Your collector doesn’t just pick up at your school and then go directly to the landfill – he stops at other customers. He can’t give you a perfect report of how much weight you disposed. As for recycling rate, it’s good to know, but schools don’t serve anything in glass, so their recyclables are light in weight, and that makes the ratio of trash to recyclables seem low, even if they recycle every can and plastic bottle. On the other hand, a school that buys and uses and recycles twice as much paper as other schools will have a high rate of recycling, but for the wrong reason!

A better idea:

Schools can more easily record the volume of waste and recyclables. Studies from around the country show that schools should be able to recycle just as much by volume as they dispose as trash. That’s a reasonable goal for all schools, and as time goes on schools can exceed this goal not only by recycling more but by buying less.

Schools can count weight or volume per person; take all the weight or volume that you ship away in a week or month or year, divide it by days and then by people (students and staff). How much do you throw away? Some schools generate as much as 2.5 pounds per person per day – that’s a lot! Others generate less than a pound. A careful school generates about a tenth of a cubic yard of unrecyclable trash per person per month, but a school that’s letting recyclables slip into the trash will dispose of a quarter of a cubic yard per month.