DEARborn Recyclers Are Making a Difference

55,000 lbs is a lot of trash. It’s hard to imagine how big a pile it’d make. That’s how much recyclable material student-led teams in Dearborn Public Schools diverted from landfill last school year. This school year, they aim to divert double that amount. Through the Dearborn Education and Action on Recycling (DEAR) program, these young environmental stewards are leading change in their community– lowering the recycling contamination rate through increased recycling knowledge.   

In 2015, representatives from the City of Dearborn invited Ecology Center and Recycle Ann Arbor to discuss the status of Dearborn recycling and brainstorm methods for tackling the growing issue of contamination in Dearborn’s residential service. City officials reported that Dearborn’s residential carts were well-used, and residents were eager to recycle, but often carts were filled with materials that the current recycling system cannot handle. Bricks, clothing, plastic bags, Styrofoam, yard waste, food, and furniture were regularly making their way into neighborhood curbside carts.

From this initial brainstorm, the DEAR program developed as a means to utilize recycling education in public schools to reduce the contamination rate of the City’s recyclables.  In the program’s first year, over 17,000 individuals gained access to school recycling, and over 11,000 students and staff participated in education.   

Dearborn is a community with a long, proud, history of recycling, setting up one of the first curbside pick-up systems in the state.  Since that time, residential recycling has gone through a lot of changes – new technologies, new materials, new markets.  The recycling center, where recycled materials are sorted and bundled for sale to remanufacturers, uses technologies that can limit the type, size, or shape of materials a curbside system can accept. Whether or not you can dispose of material in your recycling cart often depends on if the recycling center has a contract with a buyer for that material.  These factors contribute to why recycling rules can differ so from place to place and over time. Keeping the public informed and active with the ins and outs of local recycling is an ongoing challenge for municipalities, and Dearborn has been no exception.

Conversations with residents and community organizations such as ACCESS helped to identify the need for new educational approaches and resources tailored to Dearborn’s diverse population.  Schools are trusted social centers for Dearborn’s neighborhoods and were in need of recycling services.  Dearborn Education and Action on Recycling (DEAR) has grown from two pilot schools in spring 2015 to now include 30 public schools. Generous funding from the AETNA Foundation and significant financial investment from the City of Dearborn has allowed the DEAR program to grow.

Administrators, teachers, and facility personnel responded to DEAR with great enthusiasm, and they have put in tremendous effort over the past year to make recycling a part of the district’s school culture.  Each school is unique, posing distinct challenges for setting up a recycling system and making it accessible to all. While one school faces the hurdle of physically transporting recycling within a three-story building, another school tries out different methods for monitoring milk carton recycling in the lunchroom, and yet another focuses on translating recycling education for non-native English speakers to make it appropriate for all.

The real success of DEAR lies with the initiative students have taken to run the recycling programs in their schools, problem-solve to address school-specific challenges, and carry what they have learned out into the broader community. Some of the earliest schools to come onboard, Long Elementary, Salina ES Elementary, and Salina Intermediate have been particularly successful establishing student-led recycling systems. With some adult supervision, students manage the recycling collection inside the building and make sure it is placed at the curb outside for weekly pick-up.  Students use data sheets to survey each cart weekly and keep a running log of how much recycling, what type of recyclables, and types of contamination they see. Students also help to educate their peers; they even created a video to educate family members about recycling.  

Due to the popularity of the program, high schools joined the program this school year.  All public schools now have the same recycling service that residents throughout the City of Dearborn receive.  Since the beginning of the program, over 11,000 individuals have participated directly in recycling assemblies or hands-on training led by Ecology Center educators.  Student surveys indicate that student knowledge about recycling increased 44% after participating in recycling education. The students help divert more than 55,000 pounds of low-contamination recycling from the landfill.  These numbers are expected to double over the next school year as we focus on creating greater capacity among local adults to act as leaders on recycling education and advocacy.  In January 2018, a Master Recycling Educator Training will help 48 local citizens become recycling leaders, trained with the skills and knowledge to continue recycling education and serve as community advocates.

The Ecology Center has been developing effective recycling education for over 30 years. Building local capacity is at the heart of how the Ecology Center works within a community.  It is our goal to step back after this year as the local schools, residents, and City officials work together with renewed understanding and established systems for communicating and mutually supporting an ongoing recycling partnership.  

The residents of Dearborn are highly motivated to recycle and sincerely value the need to manage waste responsibly.  Teachers and parents who have participated in recycling education events hosted at neighborhood schools are interested in the topic of waste, often bring diverse, multi-cultural perspectives to the meaning of “recycle,” and have suggested improvements to the current waste management system.  This kind of active dialog between informed residents and local service providers has the potential to seed further local collaboration and long-term system improvements.

The future of the DEAR program depends on the students, their parents, and teachers along with the community around them. The students and staff participating in the program have demonstrated the dedication and innovation needed to succeed. And, when DEAR succeeds, recycling succeeds. And, that’s a win for all of us.


Published on September 27, 2017