Does Cal High really recycle?

Second Place (tie), In-Depth & Investigative Reporting

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

It’s Friday afternoon and all students are off campus. Biology teacher Erica Steadman has had a long week and is eager to go home.

But first she sorts through her classroom’s recycling bin to separate recyclables from trash. Steadman adds the recycling to bags she has been filling all week. On her own time during the weekend, she will take the bags to a recycling center to make sure their contents are recycled properly.

Steadman began doing this shortly after she started working at Cal High four years ago because she heard the school didn’t actually recycle the contents of the blue recycling bins spread across campus. However she stopped this process after about a year because it became too labor intensive.

“I was standing in the lines for sometimes an hour,” Steadman said. “It was a ton of work.”

What Steadman heard is a concern among many teachers, especially those in the science department. This begs the question: Is the school and district actually recycling materials thrown in recycling bins? Marine biology teacher Doug Mason has been pushing the district for a definitive answer to this question for 10 years now.

“We’ve never gotten an answer of ‘Yes, we recycle’,” Mason said. Mason said he served as adviser for a couple of clubs that had students grab recycling to turn in off campus, just as Steadman did.

Cal’s head custodian Roberto Manrique noted that the recycling efforts of these clubs generally last a couple months and ultimately fail. “When they open the [recycling bins], they find garbage,” Manrique said.

This turns students off from these projects and speaks to a problem custodian’s face. Manrique has a team of only 13 custodians, so he stresses how important it is for students to take responsibility in recycling properly.

“It is on the students [to recycle,]” Manrique said. “Sometimes I’ve only got five custodians.”

There are two different kinds of blue recycling bins on campus, smaller ones in classrooms and larger ones in hallways and around the quad. The larger ones have been on campus for about three years.

With not enough staff to sort through these bins, if there is any trash mixed in with the recycling Manrique and his team put all of the contents of the recycling bins in the trash.

“Most of the bins in the classrooms have garbage, so that’s why we don’t recycle those yet,” Manrique said. “There are some classrooms that really recycle. For example, the science building does the right thing because the teachers are always on top of it.”

But Manrique estimates that only a few classrooms properly recycle in the main building.

Once the recycling and garbage is collected by custodians, each is put into separate dumpsters located in the back parking lot. There are specific dumpsters for recycling and garbage, said Craig Cesco, director of maintenance and grounds for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

But Mason believes the district does not actually follow through with recycling, despite separate dumpsters.

“The last I’ve seen is the big [trash dumpsters] lifted up on the hooks and dumped into the same bed of the truck as the [recycle] bin,” Mason said.

Manrique said the district has its own trucks that pick up garbage and recycling. The district’s recycling truck was down due to maintenance issues at the end of last year.

“The only choice was to put it all together until they fixed the [recycling] truck,” Manrique said.

This lasted for a couple months, but Manrique said the recycling truck is now up and running. Cesco wrote in an email that the district takes all trash and recyclables to the Waste Management Center in San Leandro.

The San Leandro Waste Management website specifically states, “Trash is not sorted to recover recyclables. Please separate organics and recyclables at your home and office.”

So, any time Cal combines trash and recyclables together, the Waste Management center sends it all to a landfill. Many students have heard from teachers and others that this is what happens to much of what gets recycled on campus.

“I think it’s terrible, especially with climate change,” said junior Misha Bhatia, who now throws her recycling in whatever bin is closest.

Junior Brady Horton does the same. “It makes me not care which bin I put my trash in because I know that we don’t recycle anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” Horton said.

But the district has been recycling more types of materials on campus in recent years.

“The district is putting in more programs to recycle,” Manrique said. “We recycle light bulbs, we recycle batteries, and E-waste. Last year [the district] started bringing in compost bins.”

Despite concerns, Manrique says recycling is getting better. “Students are learning,” Manrique said. “There is more recycling than garbage [and] acknowledgment from students.”

This story was an honoree in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition.