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Waste watchers

Making New York City waste free with a million student helpers

Fall 2017 | By Jenny Peek

Joy Rifkin teaching
Photo by Saskia Kahn, courtesy of Teach for America


A group of fifth graders stand in a line beside a conveyor belt at the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility in Brooklyn, New York. They watch intently as heaping piles of recyclable materials – brought in by trucks and barges – trudge by and are sorted by giant magnets and optical machines.

After seven short minutes, a small block of material comes out the other end of the belt – ready to be sold to companies that use recycled plastic in their products.

This student field trip, put on by the New York City Department of Education Office of Sustainability’s Zero Waste Schools program, is just one component of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s citywide goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030.

“What making New York City a zero-waste city means is that anything that can be diverted will be diverted,” says Nelson Institute alumna Joy Rifkin, who coordinates the city’s Zero Waste Schools program. “There are a ton of different things happening citywide to reach this goal, and we’re just one part of that big pie.”

Though it’s only one piece of an overarching movement to minimize waste in the city, the Zero Waste Schools program carries a hefty footprint. The New York City Department of Education is the largest school district in the United States. It serves more than a million students in more than 1,800 schools.

"There was this idea at
Nelson of we're going to
give you this global  
perspective of environmental
studies and sustainability,
and then we're not just
going to stop there – 
we're going to start giving
you opportunities to focus
on things happening in
the community."

For Rifkin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and biology in 2011, launching the citywide waste-reduction program in schools was an obvious choice toward the larger mission. Approaching sustainability in a holistic way that centers on community engagement is something that seemed second nature after her time at the Nelson Institute.

“There was this idea at Nelson of we’re going to give you this global perspective of environmental studies and sustainability, and then we’re not just going to stop there – we’re going to start giving you opportunities to focus on things happening in the community,” says Rifkin. “It was invaluable because it gave me experience doing the things that I was learning about.”

With over a million meals served to students each day and innovative methods available to incorporate waste reduction into class curricula, Rifkin and her colleagues are gradually changing the way schools handle their trash.

The program began with 100 schools along two garbage truck routes – one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. Because the city was already equipped to collect organic material, such as food scraps, along these routes, it was well positioned to implement composting in participating schools. The program, which recently wrapped up its first year, aims to keep all of the schools’ recyclable and compostable materials out of landfills within five years.

And it’s not stopping there. Over time, the program may expand to every New York City school.

“As organics collection throughout the city expands, the program is set to expand as well,” says Rifkin. “This is the end of the first year, and there have already been tremendous diversion rates – we’re doing waste audits now and seeing awesome progress.”

While the Zero Waste Schools program has a clear benefit to the environment, the economic impact may be even more profound.

New York City is dense. More than 8 million people live within 305 square miles. Manhattan alone is home to more than 1.6 million people, all crammed into about 23 square miles. On top of that, the city’s only landfill – Fresh Kills on Staten Island – closed more than 16 years ago. With nowhere to put waste, the city is forced to ship it to other states at an astonishing cost.

“It costs $300 million per year in tax dollars, and we ship as far as South Carolina,” says Rifkin. “This isn’t just about saving our planet – there are so many ways to look at this economically and from an environmental justice perspective. We always ask our students, ‘How would you feel if some other state was shipping its trash into your backyard?’”

Building that awareness among students has been a driving force behind the project’s momentum.

“When kids are in the driver’s seat, things happen in creative ways,” Rifkin says. “The program really allows for student-driven change. They are the reason this program keeps going.”

NYC kids
NYC Kids pose after a Zero Waste Schools lesson taught by Joy Rifkin.

For example, together with students, school leaders have formed green teams, with names like Waste Watchers and The Sanitation Specialists. Students are also learning about waste reduction in the classroom. Grow-NYC, one of the Zero Waste Schools program’s local nonprofit partners, provides ways for teachers to incorporate lessons about waste into their curricula. Students have performed waste audits and measured diversion rates in math, and even written to their congressional representatives and mayor as part of social studies courses.

“People don’t think about their footprint when it comes to waste, but once that awareness is brought into a student’s mind, it is something they notice. It feels really good to be part of a team working to educate New York City’s students and stakeholders within the schools about waste,” says Rifkin.

Rifkin hopes other cities can look to the Zero Waste Schools program for inspiration. For those considering such an initiative, she stresses the importance of storytelling and making issues surrounding waste more public-facing.

“It’s really taking that story and putting it out there, so people can’t ignore the waste that they’re creating – sharing that information, sharing where recyclables go, how they’re processed, and then taking that into schools,” Rifkin advises. “Young people are the next generation, and from my experience, they really take the information, grow, and run with it.”



While alumna Joy Rifkin works hard to eliminate trash in New York City, Nelson Institute associate professor Holly Gibbs and her students are reducing waste right here on campus.

When Gibbs and research assistant Tyler Lark charged students in an environmental studies capstone class on food-related waste to research and pilot a project to increase campus sustainability, Rachel Feil saw it as a perfect opportunity to continue tackling the problem of discarded paper receipts.

Feil, then a student intern with the Office of Sustainability, Ben Stansbury- O’Donnell and Chris Taylor, all environmental studies majors, turned their minds to paper waste in campus restaurants, producing a Receipt Reduction Guide for campus businesses interested in reducing paper use and lessening the unsightly litter of unwanted receipts.

The classmates also held outreach events at Union South to better understand customer preferences and demonstrate that support existed for reduced receipt printing. Then a pilot program with University Housing’s Dining and Culinary Services showed that making paper receipts optional was completely feasible.

Now, registers in all campus Dining and Culinary Services facilities and most Wisconsin Union restaurants, markets and cafes are receipt optional. Before the change, cash registers at campus cafes were programed to print receipts automatically, generating 825 miles of receipts between Dining and Culinary Services and the Wisconsin Union.

By launching a receipt-optional program, in the first seven months alone campus restaurants were able to reduce receipt paper usage by 37 percent for the Wisconsin Union and 93 percent for Dining and Culinary Services – amounting to a total cost savings of over $10,000 in one year. In recognition of the many benefits of this effort, Gibbs and the UW-Madison Receipt Reduction Team received an Administrative Improvement Award from the university.

While the class has ended and the students have graduated, cashiers are still asking, “Do you want a receipt?” And efforts are also underway on campus to reduce the amount of food waste headed to landfills.

A student team in a subsequent capstone class led by Gibbs and Lark produced a waste reduction guide for the Wisconsin Union, providing recommendations and resources to improve current food waste management practices. In addition, environmental studies students Brenna George (who has since graduated) and Rita Kawak led an initiative as Office of Sustainability interns to assess Dining and Culinary Services’ food waste streams and offer steps to make sure that more waste is properly recycled or composted. For example, the team suggested creating signs with pictures for placement in food prep areas, to help with the correct sorting of waste items.

After the students’ recommendations were put into place, a recent followup audit found that only 4 percent of the trash at the Gordon Dining and Event Center on campus should have instead been composted, down from 49 percent at the first audit in February of this year.

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