Campus goes green

A new recycling program at Blue Oak shows students how much of an impact they can make

Sixth-graders Genesis Wilson (left) and Lily Gayton are founding members of Blue Oak’s “green team.”

Sixth-graders Genesis Wilson (left) and Lily Gayton are founding members of Blue Oak’s “green team.”

Photo by Ernesto Rivera

Get on board:
Teachers and parents wanting to learn more about Recology’s sustainable schools program and get help launching recycling programs on campus can contact Jill Ortega at

When the opportunity arose a few months ago, Lily Gayton and Genesis Wilson, both sixth-graders at Blue Oak Charter School, were among more than a dozen students who jumped at the chance to form a “green team” on their campus. They felt it was a great way to give back to their school, make it look nicer and also they see themselves as important role models for their fellow students.

“We help the school as much as possible. A lot of people litter at our school and we’re trying to stop that,” Genesis said. “So we’re helping with recycling and teaching people how to treat our school.”

Part of their job is emptying recycling bins and green-waste buckets as part of the school’s new recycling initiative to reduce its carbon footprint and keep their campus beautiful.

Blue Oak started the program in March as part of the state-sponsored Keep California Beautiful recycling challenge, said Heidi Lang, the school’s nutrition coordinator. The contest encourages K-12 schools throughout California to increase their recycling for a chance to win some cash. While Blue Oak didn’t win, Lang said it was still an important exercise because it started the much-needed program and instilled in students important values like responsibility and sustainability.

“I started here in January and I was shocked that they didn’t have a recycling program,” Lang said. “It’s a responsible way of life; I think we should all be more sustainable.”

To purchase the materials needed to enter the contest, like new bins for mixed recycling and organic waste, Lang and Principal Stephanie Nichols requested about $400 from the school’s student council, a student government group consisting of students from sixth to eighth grades. Getting the kids involved in purchasing the materials with funds they’d raised gave the student leaders special ownership of the project, Lang said, and taught them a small, yet important, lesson in civic engagement.

“We had been trying to implement something like this for at least a year,” Nichols said. “Things like this take time to get leadership and initiative. It’s hard being a charter school. We do everything in-house; we can’t just call up the district and say, ‘Hey, we need this.’”

The new program has been a huge success, Lang said, and has vastly reduced the amount of waste at the school. Before the new recycling program, Blue Oak filled two 96-gallon mixed-recycling totes that were collected once a week by Recology. These days, it’s filling 10 of the same size totes that now have to be picked up twice a week. Plus, 25 gallons of organic waste are picked up weekly by a student’s family, which uses it to feed livestock. The school’s trash dumpster went from five pickups a week to four, and the hope is to, through further recycling efforts, bring it down to three days a week once the new school year begins.

Because of their efforts, Blue Oak was the first local school to gain the attention of Recology’s new sustainable schools program, which recognizes sustainability efforts by local K-12 schools, said Jill Ortega, an account manager with Recology. Operating under the belief that 70 percent to 80 percent of a school’s waste can be diverted, Recology works closely with local campuses to develop good recycling habits and programs.

“We want to encourage the schools to do something positive and encourage other schools and show them it’s doable,” Ortega said. “We’re hoping other schools will catch on to that once we bring attention to it and show that it is possible for schools to be sustainable and doesn’t take a lot of extra work.”

While having a teacher or staff member guide them is important, Ortega said, having students manage recycling programs themselves at local schools like Blue Oak, Notre Dame and Stanford Avenue Elementary School in Oroville has been an important learning process for the students in terms of building responsibility for their waste.

“If the students are doing it, they hold themselves more accountable and that in turn makes the program more successful because they take ownership of it,” Ortega said. “They are the people that are ultimately creating the waste so they should be responsible and accountable, not just with where does it go or how we get rid of it, but what actions can we take to reduce the amount that we recreate.”

Entering the recycling-challenge contest, creating the green team and educating students about best practices have all been instrumental in changing the culture at Blue Oak and instilling values of sustainability throughout the campus and at home, Lang said.

“I’m just really proud of the kids and their efforts,” Lang said. “Especially their efforts without recognition; they’re not doing it for a reward. They’re continuing their efforts despite no prize. I really think it’s because they believe in recycling, I’m hoping we’re ingraining that in them. It really is a part of our culture here, not only at Blue Oak, but here in Chico, and I would like to see that carry on in our students and in their daily lives.”