What’s with all the garbage?
That was the question that students at John Howitt Elementary School in Port Alberni sought to answer over a nine-month class project.
The project started in September, when teacher Lauraleah Jeffery noticed that someone had thrown a recyclable wrapper in the garbage can of her Grade 6/7 classroom. Students were curious about how much garbage one classroom makes in a few months, so they began sorting the classroom waste into garbage, compost, paper and soft and hard plastics. By December, students had started counting and weighing the daily waste, documenting their results into spreadsheets in order to better understand the data.
They presented their results to staff from the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD) and board members from School District 70 Pacific Rim on May 19.
In just nine months, students saved 84,000 grams (84 kg) of food waste from being sent to the landfill, as well as more than 3,000 plastic wrappers. Approximately 19 kilograms of paper was recycled per month.
Although students tried to get to the point where they didn’t generate any garbage at all, this wasn’t possible. The class produces an average of 183.7 grams of garbage per day.
Students said that they produced an average of 14 single-use wrappers per day—nearly seven times as much as hard plastic items. Despite this, soft plastics are more difficult to recycle because they are not picked up in the curbside recycling program.
To make things more difficult, neither of the Recycle BC locations in the Alberni Valley—the Alberni Valley Landfill and the Third Avenue depot—will accept packaging from schools. In order to drop off her students’ recycling, Jeffery had to take home all the wrappers and mix them in with her own residential waste.
However, Jeffery acknowledged that there are nine other classrooms in the school, and it’s not fair to make every teacher use their personal time to recycle classroom waste.
“How can I ask these young people to be environmentally conscious when I’m not modelling it in school?” Jeffery asked ACRD staff and school board members. “The schools are not modelling it because they’re not given the ability to model it. Shouldn’t it be built into the system that we’re trying to teach the next generation?”
Jodie Frank, the ACRD’s organics diversion coordinator, said the solution is not so simple.
Residential waste in the ACRD makes up only about 30 percent of waste going to the landfill. The other 70 percent is produced by the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sector, which includes schools. The provincial Recycling Regulation only subsidizes residential recycling, leaving local governments—and their taxpayers—to pay for the costs of dealing with ICI recyclables.
Because of this, Recycle BC locations only accept residential recycling and ICI recyclables often end up in the landfill.
“It’s not just a matter of the ACRD not wanting to do it,” Frank told students. “It comes from the province. There’s a whole system that regulates residential recycling, and there’s nothing really focusing on that commercial sector.”
Frank said the province recently put together an action plan that outlines and identifies “priority actions” when it comes to recycling. One of these priorities is a phased approach for collecting packaging and paper from the ICI sector.
She encouraged students—and anyone else with concerns—to send letters to the province and Mid-Island Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne, advocating for regulation of ICI recyclables.
“We only have one landfill,” said Frank. “Once that reaches its end life, we have to start hauling our waste to the mainland because there’s no more room.”
SD70 board chair Pam Craig also encouraged students to write a letter to the board or attend a board meeting so that the school district can get involved in advocating for change.
“It takes so long to create change,” Jeffery told her students. “But without the letters and the data and the actual proof that there’s a problem, nothing happens.”