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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Recycling Rut

Air Date: Week of

Youth Radio producer Ricky Zhang goes to high school in Oakland. He sent us this story after he got tired of stepping over trash and wondered how a school could have a successful recycling program and a major trash problem at the same time.


CURWOOD: Changing attitudes can take a long time. Right in the same city as Van Jones there’s a school that's developed a successful recycling program. You’d think it would be litter free. But that's not the case at Oakland High School, where each month enough garbage is generated to fill a classroom to the ceiling. The school’s Environmental Science Academy is in its seventh year. But only ten percent or so of the school’s student population takes part in the recycling efforts. As Youth Radio’s Ricky Zhang explains, the enthusiasm of Academy members for cleaning up the campus is taking its time to rub off on their classmates.

ZHANG: Walk through a stairwell after lunch at my school, and you’ll be tripping over chip-bags and soda cans, and wading through a garden of sunflower seeds freshly watered with saliva. Fusima Latu says she wishes kids would think more about what they’re doing.

LATU: Kids think it’s not cool to throw your trash away, but, you know, it would be like, would you go to your house and live in a pile of trash?

ZHANG: Obviously, some kids do care how our school looks…Oakland High has a serious recycling program. It’s part of our Environmental Science Academy, or ESA, a special academic program for kids into science and nature. Kevin Jordan is a science teacher who helped found ESA.

JORDAN: Basically, in Oakland, we have a culture of trash and our kids grow up, often times, uh, maybe in households where recycling is not going on and seeing trash on the streets. Our neighborhood’s in trouble. So when we’re trying to get them to recycle here often times we’re really starting from zero.

ZHANG: Oh my God! Did Mr. Jordan just say we have a culture of trash in Oakland? I should be appalled by that, but honestly, I’m not! Mr. Jordan has a point…

JORDAN: You know, here I am getting these kids to do this task that is not real desirable, and one of them was carrying a recycling bin – and took a punch while they were carrying the recycling bin out to the recycling place outside. So at that point we have to really look at, “Are our hallways safe enough to carry out this task?”

ZHANG: Apparently not, because Mr. Jordan says he shut down the recycling program for about a month after the punching incident. That made life even harder for Oakland High’s two daytime custodians, who handle garbage generated by over two thousand students. What does custodian Sylvester Lawston see?

LAWSTON: You know I see a lot of trash that I throw away that should be recycled, but you know, my job is to throw away trash and if it’s in the cans I got to throw away I’m not gonna separate it, you know, I mean, but, I see a lot of waste.


ZHANG: Well, I see a lot of waste too…There’s the trash can – there’s a trail of ants all over it! Look at all these ants – that’s just disgusting!


ZHANG: Marisol Ochoa thinks she knows why recycling hasn’t rubbed off on everyone. She says, while she and other ESA students go on cool field trips to the local lake or the dump, the general population at Oakland High never learns where trash really goes.

OCHOA: Like they don’t know exactly what happens to that piece of gum. It goes into the water, it goes into the, um, it goes into our lake – into our ocean, and in ESA you learn about all that stuff. We see what happens. We see the results.

ZHANG: Lanikqua Howard is also in ESA. She has her own theory to explain our trash complex.

HOWARD: In some manners it might be psychological. Students don’t throw away their trash… ‘cause they might feel like… oh, I don’t like this school, or teachers, they give me bad grades so I don’t care about this school – and I’m just going to trash it – but that’s not fair to other people who do actually like this campus.

ZHANG: But of course, I can’t just talk about litterers. I need to talk to one, too…Like senior Lindsay Castillo.

CASTILLO: I want my neighborhood to look better than my school, usually because, that’s where I live – you know, it’s like my sanctuary.

ZHANG: But, Lindsay says school is just a place she has to “get through.” So she “accidentally” drops her wrappers and cans on the floor at Oakland High all the time.

CASTILLO: The school does bring the worst out of you – that’s probably why, it can encourage littering – mostly because it’s a stressful environment.

ZHANG: Sure, it’s stressful. But there are so many wonderful things about our school. Like, in my English class, there are students who speak seven different languages. And we have some kick ass homecoming rallies. But I get embarrassed bringing people to my school, because I’m deathly afraid they won’t see past the trash, and they’ll think of it as just another low ranked Oakland public school. For Living on Earth, I’m Ricky Zhang.

CURWOOD: Our story on recycling at Oakland High School was produced by Youth Radio’s Environmental Desk in association with National Geographic.



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