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A South Bay school is violating California's recycling law – but few are complaining – The Mercury News

A recycling bin at Los Gatos High School is locked on Dec. 14, 2023. The school only recycles paper, not other materials required by state law. (Julia Dang / Mosaic Staff)

Editor's Note: This article was written for Mosaic Vision, an independent journalism training program for high school students to report and photograph under the guidance of professional journalists.

Like many other high schools, Los Gatos High School strives to make its students better citizens who are informed about the impacts of climate change. The topic is part of the school's curriculum in the senior courses of environmental science, biology, politics and English.

When students need to dispose of their recyclable waste, they have no choice but to throw it all in the solid waste bin. The cafeteria serves food to around 1,200 students daily, creating a mountain of aluminum, plastic, and food scraps. However, composting and recycling aluminum and plastic are not options. The cafeteria's recycling bins are padlocked during the day, and Los Gatos High only offers recycling for clean paper.

The school's stance on recycling runs counter to California's recycling laws. When the state's mandatory commercial recycling law took effect in June 2012, public entities that generated a certain amount of solid waste were required to “reuse, recycle, compost or otherwise divert solid waste from disposal,” according to CalRecycle, the state agency responsible for recycling.

CalRecycle's website clearly states the rules that apply to schools: “Wherever recycling or organic waste is generated, a school must provide an appropriate container adjacent to the solid waste container to collect and divert recycling and organic waste. Containers must be easily accessible, visible and clearly marked.”

If the law is so clear, why doesn't the school follow it?

A major problem was the contamination of recycling bins with non-recyclable materials. Students were throwing non-recyclable garbage into the recycling bins, so in 2021 the school's Environmental Outreach Club decided to ask the school to padlock the bins to prevent students from throwing unsorted materials into them.

The school collects recycled paper in cardboard bins throughout the school district—and the bins essentially serve as a collection point for the recycled clean paper—but not for material generated from lunches in the cafeteria.

Although he admits to being familiar with Senate Bill 1383, the state's recycling law, Principal Kevin Buchanan stands firmly behind the school's non-compliance policy. “I occasionally notice one or two [recycling bins] with missing locks and I have placed a work order to have them replaced,” he said.

CalRecycle only investigates school compliance when someone files a complaint, but that happens rarely, to the extent that “enforcement officials did not receive any complaints or referrals for school districts last year, so no local education agencies were evaluated in 2023,” said Lance Klug, a CalRecycle spokesman.

Although schools like Los Gatos High School get a free pass on not recycling, the state is expanding its efforts to encourage recycling by passing laws like the new Edible Food Recovery Act, which took effect Jan. 1. It requires local educational institutions with an on-site cafeteria to donate all uneaten and unused food to a food recovery organization and keep records of their donations.

Some students believe that the school could comply with recycling laws if it did more to educate students about what to recycle and how to do it properly.

“I think we should have more clubs that teach people about recycling. No one at our school taught us about these things,” says Kiana Mehrany, a senior.

“I always see everyone throwing food and trash in the same bin,” said junior Haley Jung. “Nobody recycles at school except paper, but I don't think that's going well.”

While some schools in the area have much more efficient recycling programs, students have similar attitudes. Minh-Khang Le, a student at Evergreen Valley High School, thinks his San Jose school's program, which includes recycling bins that easily separate waste into recyclables and compost, does a good job. However, he thinks more people should be better educated about recycling because “some students don't think too much about it and throw everything into a nearby bin that looks like trash.”

Amanda Robison, a student at Leigh High School in San Jose, shares Le's sentiments, expressing concern that whatever her school does is only as effective as students' willingness to actually recycle. She says, “They just throw their stuff in the bin that's closer.”

Unless someone officially complains, Los Gatos High School's recycling-free policy is unlikely to change.

Anyone who wants to take this step can file complaints online, according to CalRecycles spokesman Klug.