A South Bay school is violating California's recycling law – but few are complaining – The Mercury News

Editor's Note: This article was written for Mosaic Vision, an independent journalism training program for prime school students to report and photograph under the guidance of skilled journalists.

Like many other high schools, Los Gatos High School strives to make its students higher residents who’re informed concerning the impacts of climate change. The topic is a component of the college's curriculum within the senior courses of environmental science, biology, politics and English.

When students have to get rid of their recyclable waste, they don’t have any selection but to throw all of it within the solid waste bin. The cafeteria serves food to around 1,200 students day by day, making a mountain of aluminum, plastic, and food scraps. However, composting and recycling aluminum and plastic usually are not options. The cafeteria's recycling bins are padlocked in the course of the day, and Los Gatos High only offers recycling for clean paper.

The school's stance on recycling runs counter to California's recycling laws. When the state's mandatory industrial recycling law took effect in June 2012, public entities that generated a specific amount of solid waste were required to “reuse, recycle, compost or otherwise divert solid waste from disposal,” in response to CalRecycle, the state agency answerable for recycling.

CalRecycle's website clearly states the principles that apply to varsities: “Wherever recycling or organic waste is generated, a school must provide an appropriate container adjacent to the solid waste container to collect and divert recycling and organic waste. Containers must be easily accessible, visible, and clearly marked.”

If the law is so clear, why doesn't the college follow it?

A significant problem was the contamination of recycling bins with non-recyclable materials. Students were throwing non-recyclable garbage into the recycling bins, so in 2021 the college's Environmental Outreach Club decided to ask the college to padlock the bins to forestall students from throwing unsorted materials into them.

The school collects recycled paper in cardboard bins throughout the college district—and the bins essentially function a group point for the recycled clean paper—but not for material generated from lunches within the cafeteria.

Although he admits to being aware of Senate Bill 1383, the state's recycling law, Principal Kevin Buchanan stands firmly behind the college's non-compliance policy. “I occasionally notice one or two [recycling bins] with missing locks and I have placed a work order to have them replaced,” he said.

CalRecycle only investigates school compliance when someone files a criticism, but that happens rarely, to the extent that “enforcement officials did not receive any complaints or referrals for school districts last year, so no local education agencies were evaluated in 2023,” said Lance Klug, a CalRecycle spokesman.

Although schools like Los Gatos High School get a free pass on not recycling, the state is expanding its efforts to encourage recycling by passing laws just like the latest Edible Food Recovery Act, which took effect Jan. 1. It requires local educational institutions with an on-site cafeteria to donate all uneaten and unused food to a food recovery organization and keep records of their donations.

Some students imagine that the college could comply with recycling laws if it did more to teach students about what to recycle and how you can do it properly.

“I think we should have more clubs that teach people about recycling. No one at our school taught us about these things,” says Kiana Mehrany, a senior.

“I always see everyone throwing food and trash in the same bin,” said junior Haley Jung. “Nobody recycles at school except paper, but I don't think that's going well.”

While some schools in the realm have rather more efficient recycling programs, students have similar attitudes. Minh-Khang Le, a student at Evergreen Valley High School, thinks his San Jose school's program, which incorporates recycling bins that easily separate waste into recyclables and compost, does an excellent job. However, he thinks more people needs to be higher educated about recycling because “some students don't think too much about it and throw everything into a nearby bin that looks like trash.”

Amanda Robison, a student at Leigh High School in San Jose, shares Le's sentiments, expressing concern that whatever her school does is just as effective as students' willingness to truly recycle. She says, “They just throw their stuff in the bin that's closer.”

Unless someone officially complains, Los Gatos High School's recycling-free policy is unlikely to vary.

For those that want to take this step, CalRecycles spokesperson Klug says complaints might be filed on-line.

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