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Young Recyclers Lead the Way

Streamlined program at German School signals economic shift.

The kindergartners at the German School don’t know much about Montgomery County Executive Regulation 18-04.

But they do know how to sort trash, recyclable paper, plastics and used batteries, making them an integral part of a new plan at the school that organizers say will exceed the new stringent recycling requirements and save money.

The school’s new color-coded, three-stream recycling system arose from a chance encounter. Journalist and businesswoman Anke Weiland and her husband Karl Ambratis, who has worked in waste management for over 20 years, attended a martial arts class at the school last year.

“We were the oldest kids in that class,” Weiland said.

They met a parent there who introduced them to the school’s elementary principal Thomas Lutz.

Lutz had proposed an after school environmental club at the school, in part to encourage the extensive recycling practices of his native Germany.

"We talked about that and then we decided we should do a bigger thing," he said. "Now this has really gotten [to be] a very, very good program," with German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger serving as honorary patron.

Weiland and Ambratis, who run the consulting firm International Economic and Ecological Services, agreed to audit and redesign the school’s waste management plan. Starting in October, 2004, they spent months in the school, talking to students and teachers, studying trash removal contracts and pick-up times, and devising ways to run a tighter ship.

This month, their changes took effect, with the kindergartners and other students leading the way.

Weiland and Ambratis visited the school twice to teach small groups of students about the multicolored bins throughout the school. A group of restless kindergartners sat before a heap of unsorted trash Sept. 8 as Weiland lectured in German. When she set them to work, there was no hesitation. They scurried around the pile, separating cans from paper from candy wrappers.

FOR THE SCHOOL, the new plan is both an educational opportunity and a chance for cost savings, but it also signals a regional and national shift in waste management practices—one born out of necessity.

Decades-old landfills belonging to big cities like New York and Washington, D.C., are either filling up or closing down for environmental reasons, and with low unemployment and suburban population growth, businesses are generating a lot more trash. Some incinerators are running at or above capacity.

Eileen Kao, recycling coordinator for Montgomery County, said that the county currently has adequate capacity at its incinerator — thanks in part to the quality of its recycling program.

"We are nationally known. In the solid waste industry, we are a leader," she said. "There are extremely few jurisdictions that are as progressive and as comprehensive in their recycling programs as we are."

But while residential recycling and trash pick-up falls to the county, businesses must hire haulers to carry trash and recyclables to county processing facilities. Residential waste in Montgomery County is carried to the Shady Grove Transfer Station in Gaithersburg, then makes its way by train to the incinerators in Dickerson. Residential recyclables are processed at several special plants.

The situation is different for businesses. Contracted haulers can carry business waste and recyclables to the market of their choice — maybe Shady Grove, maybe a less expensive landfill or more lucrative recycling center out of state.

Well-sorted recyclables are a valuable commodity, Kao said. Market forces like the strong demand for steel in China have driven up prices for the raw materials produced by good recycling plants. Montgomery County earned $3 million in gross revenue from its recycling last year.

Historically, waste haulers have pocketed those profits without passing them back to the businesses that provided, and once paid for, the cans, plastics, and paper. Kao said that that is changing, and that her office is encouraging businesses to ask for rebates against the cost of their hauling contracts from waste management companies.

The savings could do a lot for an organization like the German School.

"The priority is helping the environment," Lutz said, "but saving money is also important.

"If you can save money you are able to invest it in more important fields, for example in classrooms or for excursions."

MORE THAN 80 percent of the 2,000 landfills in the United States are now controlled by the handful of large waste management companies that contract with business to haul off trash and recyclables, according Weiland.

“They control [the landfills], and they also control the prices,” she said, and with gas prices soaring, so are the contract prices.

But the companies charge by volume, not weight. Corrugated cardboard boxes thrown out whole are a handout to the haulers. Collapsing them is a start, but even the collapsed boxes tend to expand, according to Ambratis. Taking the time to cut them up could save a business thousands annually.

Likewise with balling up that unsuccessful first draft of a book report. Ambratis and Weiland showed students at the school how to tear up used paper—which they thoroughly enjoyed doing.

“There was a lot of disbelief in the very beginning whether this would work,” Weiland said, noting that the youngest students in the school can’t even read yet.

“They can’t read commingled. And what does commingled mean anyway?” she said.

But kindergartners, older students, teachers, and cleaning staff who may not be native speakers of English can all understand the color-coded system, she said.

"You just change the perception," said Lutz, stressing that for the young students, the habit of always recycling has taken hold in a matter of weeks. "It's absolutely a success."

Once the new system at the German School is established, Weiland said it plans to reach out to other schools in the area in an educational and strategic partnership.

“They’re really changing a situation that is born out of necessity into something that benefits more than just the economic underpinnings,” she said.