Alameda schools make progress on reducing garbage, energy use

Alameda schools make progress on reducing garbage, energy use

Michele Ellson
Contributed photo.

Ruth Abbe has been working to promote recycling in Alameda and beyond for over 20 years. But the Alameda Unified School District, she said, was a tough nut to crack.

In 2008 the stars aligned, though: The school district got new leadership and parents worked with its garbage contractor to find a way to compost and recycle more without increasing the district’s trash bill. Work rules were changed, allowing teachers and custodians to get more involved. And parents helped the district score a $142,000, three-year grant to implement recycling programs.

Now nearly every district school has a waste reduction program that diverts the majority of schools’ waste out of landfills, a report administrators presented to the Board of Education on Tuesday night showed. The report also showed how much energy and water district schools saved last year.

District-wide, Alameda Unified is diverting 60 percent of its waste from landfills this year, up from 41 percent in 2008. The district’s elementary schools used 7.9 percent less electricity and gas in January of this year than they did the year before, while middle and high schools used 17.6 percent less energy over the same time period. Schools’ water usage, though, rose 3.3 percent, the report said.

“With the support of teachers, students, the superintendent, custodians and the parent community we have made amazing strides district-wide,” said Michele Kuttner, a Bay Farm Elementary teacher who helped create the Alameda Green Schools challenge and now serves as the liaison between the Green Schools committee, the district and the teachers.

Abbe said the district had a long-established classroom recycling program but that it was “invisible” to students at many schools.

“All of the classroom waste would go into the recycling bin. All of the rest of the waste would go into the trash,” Abbe said. “The connection between what we do at school and what we do at home was lost.”

The city’s 2008 plan to reduce greenhouse gases included recycling and composting at schools, and parents at Edison Elementary started a Go Green program that was piloted into four other schools in 2009 and has been implemented in nearly every school since. The group applied for and received a grant to implement recycling and composting efforts district-wide.

Prior to the program’s implementation, Kuttner said Bay Farm was filling seven to eight barrels with trash during lunchtime every day. Now the school, which houses more than 500 students, sends just one barrel of trash to the landfill each day, she said. Overall, the school is diverting 70 percent of its waste through recycling and composting, she said.

The district’s overall recycling and composting rates fell short of its 70 percent goal, though Abbe said schools that didn’t meet the goal may be doing a better job steering waste from the landfill than some of the numbers appear to show. Some schools are victims of illegal dumping, which puts a dent in their diversion rates, Abbe said. And she said that since the rates are calculated by the volume of a school’s bins rather than the volume or weight of its waste, schools that have bigger or more bins than they actually fill show a lower diversion rate than those who have the right size and number of bins.

But maintaining the programs as fresh groups of families enter schools – and principals and custodians change – can also be a challenge, Abbe and others said.

In addition to reducing garbage, district leaders are working to lower schools’ energy and water use. The district met its energy reduction target this year, and many energy saving measures have been implemented, a manager at Alameda Municipal Power said.

Alameda Unified is one of Alameda’s top 10 energy users, AMP Assistant General Manager Sherri Hong said.

A 2010 energy audit, which was prompted by AMP and paid for with federal stimulus money, showed that the district was spending $1.4 million a year on electricity and gas, $120,000 of it at times when the schools weren’t occupied. Energy bills for July and August were $80,000 a month, about 65 percent of what they averaged during the months school was in session the audit found. It offered a list of 15 potential energy-saving measures, six of which offered a savings of $113,000 a year, the audit said.

District officials are planning to install more efficient lighting and to replace an aged walk-in freezer at Alameda Unified’s Clement Avenue warehouse – a project that could produce dramatic energy savings.

AMP’s Meredith Owens said one major energy saver recommended by the audit – a program that would have shut off computers district-wide – wasn’t implemented by Alameda Unified because it didn’t work with the district’s computer system. But the district’s maintenance, operations and facilities chief, Robby Lyng, said efforts are underway to cut computers’ energy use.

Lyng said the district is also seeking to replace leaking controllers that may be dripping too much water onto schools’ fields. If anything, it has a financial incentive to do so: water rates that will rise by 6 to 7 percent, instead of the 1 to 2 percent increases the district has seen in the past, said Kristi Ojigho, a maintenance, operations and facilities coordinator.

Waste reduction efforts for this year include new fruit and salad bars that should reduce the amount of plastic packaging dumped into schools’ gray garbage bins, which Ojigho said the district hopes to have in every school by the end of April. And district leaders want to create standard, district-wide recycling processes and equipment, she said.

Abbe said she’ll be talking to the district about doing more to integrate its green goals into the curriculum. She said students who are participating in a hands-on waste reduction project at Wood Middle School, for example, are performing better in math and science.

Overall, those who have been most involved in the composting and recycling efforts said they are pleased with the progress the programs have made.

“It is a true case study for how challenging it is to change human behavior but I am looking forward to pushing ahead to the point that we are something of a ‘zero waste’ school district,” Kuttner said.


Here are waste diversion rates for each Alameda Unified school (2008 rate/2012 rate).

Academy of Alameda/Nea Lower House: 38 percent/67 percent
Alameda High: 36/54
Amelia Earhart: 65/66
Bay Farm: 20/69
Edison: 50/72
Encinal High/ACLC: 50/51
Franklin: 50/62
Haight: 67/78
Island High/BASE: 40/60
Lincoln Middle: 31/64
Lum: 43/69
Nea Upper House/Woodstock Child Development Center: 50/70
Otis: 43/67
Paden: 38/67
Ruby Bridges: 19/60
Washington: 67/70
Wood Middle: 65/70
AUSD offices: 60/64
District-wide: 41/60

Source: Alameda Unified School District


Submitted by Jen Laird O'Rafferty on Wed, Apr 11, 2012

Great sorry! Thanks for covering it Michele.

Submitted by Jen Laird O'Rafferty on Wed, Apr 11, 2012

Great story, Michele. Thanks for covering it.