During recess duty, it would break Jen Vanderbrook’s heart to see St. Clement of Rome School’s huge trash dumpster brimming over with plastic, paper and giant cardboard boxes from the school’s cafeteria service.
Vanderbrook, St. Clement’s kindergarten teacher and an 11-year teaching veteran, had been raised to be an avid recycler by her parents and had participated in can and newspaper recycling drives during her own school days at St. Clement of Rome.
“You’d see the water bottles, the amount of paper thrown away in the copy room alone – you’d accidentally make the wrong copy of something and then it would just go in the trash,” Vanderbrook said. “I would see that and think, ‘All that can be recycled.’”
Last November, after years of taking recyclables from the faculty lounge to her own home for curbside recycling and numerous meetings with Progressive Waste Solutions, Vanderbrook finally realized her dream: A campuswide recycling program at the Metairie school.
Items such as paper, plastic water bottles, plastic cleaning supply containers, Kleenex boxes are placed by students and teachers in recycling boxes set up in each classroom and in the faculty lounge.
Once a week, seventh graders fan out over campus to pick up these boxed recyclables and dump them in the school’s large recycling dumpster behind the gym, which gets picked up weekly by Progressive.
Vanderbrook also recruited two third-graders to pick up the numerous empty food boxes discarded by the school cafeteria.
“It’s a ‘big clean’ once a week and we are always able to fill our larger (recycling) bin,” Vanderbrook said. “One of the great things about the program is the students are dumping, not a janitor. The kids are seeing all that’s being removed from the waste stream.”
To save money – and in cooperation with the program’s green spirit – the smaller classroom bins all are student-decorated boxes that once housed copy paper or book orders.
“We thought about going to buy special containers, but it’s kind of silly when you have sturdy cardboard boxes sitting around that you can use,” Vanderbrook said.
The teacher said her kindergartners took to recycling very quickly. She regularly holds up various items to ask the youngsters if they are recyclable in the school program, which does not accept glass or boxes that contain remnants of food.
Vanderbrook also encourages her little ones to ask her if they are in doubt about whether an item can be recycled or not: so it’s “yes” to leftover paper from an art project and “no” to a used Kleenex.
“Once you introduce it to them, they are really gung-ho about it,” Vanderbrook said. “When you start at an early age, you build a foundation. If they start doing it in school hopefully they’ll start doing it at home, even if their parents aren’t really recycling. Maybe by seeing the kids doing it, they’ll start doing it, too.”
The initiative, which was greenlighted by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, carries a monthly charge of about $60 – which covers the costs of weekly pick-up and rental of a three-yard recycling dumpster from Progressive. The contract period covers the 10 months of the school year.
While Dr. Patricia Speeg, St. Clement’s principal, said the school would have found “wiggle room” in its budget for the endeavor, Shannon Rodi Nash, a Remax affiliate and a St. Clement alumna, parishioner and school parent – stepped up to cover the cost of the service for its inaugural year.
Vanderbrook hopes other schools will follow suit. While working out program details with Progressive, she learned that St. Clement was the only archdiocesan school in East Jefferson to have on-campus recycling pick-up from that company.
Vanderbrook quipped that she has been working on the project for so long, she sometimes forgets that the recycling bins are all over campus.
“The other day I started collecting water bottles to put in my car to take home,” she said. “Then I realized, ‘Wait a minute! I can put them in the recycling bin here!’” she said.
“It’s been great that I don’t have to bring everything home anymore!”