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CPS schools set their own recycling goal to reach each week. In fall 2009, close to half the schools reported under 75 percent compliance.

Chicago schools’ growing environmental options

by Leor Galil and Mary Beth Nevulis
Feb 10, 2010

The Chicago Public Schools have recently come under scrutiny for their use of disposable trays and the amount of food waste they throw away, but school officials say they’re doing what they can to be more environmentally conscious. 

“Our issue here is that we’re a district of 670 schools,” CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan said.  “Everything we do has to be geared towards dealing with that volume. There’s a cost issue.” 

The school district has a comprehensive environmental action plan headed by Suzanne Carlson, environmental program manager.  Carlson also cites the school district’s size as hampering CPS efforts to be more sustainable. 

“We’re a really large system,” Carlson said.  “I think we’re making a lot of progress. Our top strategies have been energy use, school gardens and recycling. We’re doing a really good job of improving our recycling.” 

A pilot compost program is in the works at five school sites,  and schools may apply for grants to install solar panels, Carlson said. The next step is going to focus on reducing energy costs and usage. 

“At this time, we’re trying to communicate better with the schools about how much energy they use,” Carlson said. “We’re working on a plan whereby we can start some of our energy-sharing incentives with the schools.” Energy costs at CPS schools topped $74.5 million in the 2009 fiscal year. 

There are many ways a school can become more sustainable. Sara Elizabeth Ippel, who founded the Academy for Global Citizenship on the Southwest Side in 2008, has implemented compost-friendly meal trays, “waste-free days” and raising school chickens to assist with the composting at the Academy. 

“We all need to start somewhere, and there’s such a variety of ways where we can take our first step,” Ippel said. “I think if it’s a passion and if it’s a priority, all of these things are attainable. Some of these applications are more complicated than others, some may take an hour.” 

Although costs are cited as an impediment toward making schools more environmentally friendly, one program, called Terracycle, is not only free, but will pay the school for recycling. 

Students collect specific items like drink pouches or potato chip bags and the schools mail them to the company.  Terracycle then pays the schools a set amount for each item received and makes what would have been trash into backpacks and pencil cases. 

“It’s a way to reuse something that can’t normally be recycled, and you end up making money for your school,” said Erin Kennedy of S.C.A.R.C.E, or School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education. “It’s stuff that kids already bring in for lunch anyway.” 

Schools need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, said Carlson, and that can vary how the CPS environmental program gets involved and what methods it uses to teach sustainability. 

“We’re assessing what’s going on at the school levels,” Carlson said. “Schools are pretty autonomous as far as what they teach in the classroom. It’s something that’s on the agenda to look at more.”