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Students take lead to clean up recycling stream

Students look for contaminants as they empty recycling bins.

After conducting a waste audit, Millcreek students realized their school had an issue with contamination in their recycling. Items that are not recyclable in Lexington kept finding their way into each classroom’s blue bin. “Though their contamination rate was relatively low, the students and teachers at Millcreek take great pride in their recycling program,” said Bluegrass Greensource educator Rachel Patton. “They were personally invested in reducing the amount of trash that was in their recycling.” 

Patton works with schools on waste issues through a contract with the city. Under her guidance, Millcreek’s E=USE2 Energy Club stepped up with a hands-on approach to improving the school’s recycling efforts. The 30 students started emptying the blue bins twice a week and sorting out contaminants like tissues, paper towels, and food wrappers. The students would then tape a hand-written note to the classroom door, detailing what trash they had found. 

The notes served to educate classmates and teachers on items commonly found in the recycling bins that did not belong there. Later, Patton worked with the students to create and print sticky notes that list the most common contaminants. Now when the student team collects the recycling, they simply check the appropriate box on the sticker and place it on the door. “Teachers are so motivated to recycle right, they often get frustrated when they have a sticker on their door,” said Kristen Witt, a STEM teacher at Millcreek. 

Since the Energy Club has committed to engaging and educating their school, Millcreek’s contamination has decreased. One measure students implemented was to move recycling bins that were previously located next to trashcans and under sinks. This proximity sometimes led to classmates inadvertently placing trash in the wrong receptacle. Since taking this step, the students have documented a noticeable reduction of paper towels in the recycling stream. 

“I am so proud of these students,” Patton said. “The improvements made at Millcreek all come from their initiative and energy. As an educator, it’s so gratifying to see the real-world impacts of students applying the lessons you’ve taught them.”