ISB's student-driven journey to recycling
Posted 05/16/2019 09:00AM

Recycling - students with bins

By Matthew Yamatin, ISB Sustainability Manager

Waste is a BIG topic in today's classrooms. Talk to our students and you will hear concern over issues ranging from plastics and microplastics in the ocean being eaten by fish, birds, and turtles to the harm of fast fashion to the increase in single-use disposal containers created by the rise of convenient food delivery.

Teachers are often surprised by how aware our students are of these issues and their desire to make a positive impact on the community and their future planet. The International School of Beijing (ISB) is a home that encourages students to turn those dreams into reality through its design process and opportunities to use the school as a living laboratory.

Recently, Beijing established rules around waste separation that will work to change old habits of simply throwing everything away. ISB students are not content to sit and wait though – across the school, ideas and designs began to proliferate. In the Elementary School, grade 2 students conducted waste audits and generated ideas to reduce waste as part of their Reduce, Reuse, Recycle unit.

These students also performed the crucial task of testing the recycling bin designs to help us understand how effective certain aspects of design were, such as the use of color, words, pictures, and shapes. The grade 2 students are now our front-line task force for educating the rest of the Elementary School on how to use our new recycling system.

Recycling - Matthew Yamatin talking

In the Middle School, an Enrichment class focused on waste management worked through the ISB design process to pass what I have termed the 'One Second Test.' The basis of this test is that you, as a designer, have one second of someone's attention to help them navigate what recycling/trash bin to use – a test that has foiled many recycling systems around the world.

The students ideated and tested multiple combinations of shapes, colors, pictures, and words before deciding on a final design they believe could pass the test. ISB's new recycling system borrowed heavily from the work completed by this group. Although the bins have only been out for a few weeks, the results look promising – I think they may just have cracked the puzzle!

Recycling - bin prototype

In our High School, four students from the Net Impact ISB student service club seized the role of project manager to construct and deliver an effective proposal to school leadership. With a club mission to take meaningful actions to reduce the negative impacts at ISB and utilizing those actions to raise awareness of global sustainability issues among the broader ISB community, the students developed a plan of action built around collaboration, design, and effective process management. The results of their work are now visually apparent, as the new recycling system launched on Earth Day (April 22).

Equally importantly, students recognize that their job is not yet complete; if anything, it is just beginning. Awareness and training of other students, staff, and contractors are needed to maintain an effective and sustainable recycling system at ISB – one that will make the positive impact for which they strive. One of the biggest takeaways from this process was that mistakes were made and will continue to be made along the way, but that is okay as from these mistakes we have all improved our understanding. Is that not how the best learning occurs?

Watch this promotional video (YouTube link) created by Net Impact ISB as a kick-off to the awareness program.

To ensure our recyclables are given new life through the recycling process, ISB partners with two companies. The Clean Recycling Development Corporation, which also provides recycling services to the US Embassy, collects our paper, cardboard, #1/2/5 plastics (the number represents the type of plastic), and aluminum cans and hauls them to its recycling facility in southern Beijing. Our students have been invited to tour the corporation's facility and see firsthand what happens to the materials they throw into the bins.

We also recycle juice boxes, but these are more complex to recycle as they consist of six layers – two paper, three plastic, and one aluminum. This complexity requires special equipment to recycle and ISB works with Xinhongpeng Paper Beijing, located in Fangshan District, to recycle these items into craft and writing paper.

This whole-school, student-driven project illustrates the guiding impact behind ISB's soon-to-be-released Sustainability Roadmap, specifically our commitments to:

  • Foster a new generation of environmental leaders by providing mentoring, networking, experiential learning opportunities that prepare students with the insight and foresight to safeguard our environment in the years and decades to come
  • Reduce waste per student by 60 percent by 2025
  • Improve awareness and education of the ISB community on the 5Rs (refuse, reduce, reuse, recycling, rot) and the impacts of the waste we generate.
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