Plastics Recycling, Compost Paused

Poly’s sustainability efforts waiting on DSNY services to fully resume

A new sustainability program, the Lorax Program, aims to help students learn about recycling and composting, but due to lingering pandemic-induced changes in the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), Poly has been unable to compost or recycle plastic this year. 

“The Upper Campus continues to recycle cardboard and is working with the Dyker Heights District Representative to reinstitute Organics [composting] and plastics recycling,” wrote Head of Operations Matt Stelluto in an email to the Polygon. “There have been a number of updates to DSNY policy and service options since last year, to which Poly strives to adhere.”

When the pandemic struck, in attempts to limit person-to-person contact, DSNY suspended certain disposal services. Stelluto said Poly reached out to the school’s DSNY representative multiple times over the past two months in an attempt to get the school’s recycling and compost services back to full function.

“We have finally connected and are taking the appropriate steps to reenter the Organics composting and plastics recycling program,” Stelluto wrote. There is not a set date when the program will resume, but Stelluto added that over the past several weeks Operations has been “ordering and receiving materials that enable us to create standardized, clearly delineated recycling stations in each of our dining areas, as well as improved labeling of hallway and common area receptacles.”

Given this suspension, the Lorax Program—which set up student volunteers to help their peers sort recycling, compost, and trash during lunch time at the beginning of the year—has been temporarily paused. “We took a pause to work with Mr. Stelluto to better understand where Poly stands with regards to [DSNY] programming,” wrote Interim Director of Student Life Jared Winston, who began the Lorax Program along with Head of School Audrius Barzdukas, in an email to the Polygon. “As New York (and its dizzying array of services) returns to normalcy on the tail end of a society-disrupting pandemic, it is our hope that we can compost and recycle plastic as soon as the larger system within which we operate allows.”

In the meantime, Winston continued, “doing the bare minimum to discard trash properly is well within our means as individuals.” 

“I created the Lorax Program with Mr. Barzdukas in hopes of teaching students how we can make individual choices to generate change on a larger scale,” Winston said. “Correctly disposing of the waste is probably the easiest thing we can do on an individual basis to impact the world and the health of our collective future.”

When the Lorax Program began at the start of this year, student volunteers wore orange vests with Poly logos on them and directed their peers toward what to recycle, compost, and trash. 

“At first I was taken by the bright vests and just thought it would be something fun to do with my friends, but it was much more than that,” said freshman Owen ten Oever, a volunteer with the Lorax Program. “It was interesting to see how no one really puts any thought into where they throw their food away. Everyone is so rushed to the next period that they don’t even take a moment to check.”

“I enjoyed educating other Poly students on where their food should be going, and I think that the Lorax Program is a fun and beneficial way to grow as a community when it comes to fighting climate change,” continued ten Over. 

Some students, however, wondered if the program could be more effective. 

“The Lorax Program is a smart way to get engagement from the student body when it comes to recycling, but it’s not effective,” said freshman Mila Taendler said. “No one is going to remember what a student tells them in a loud and crowded lunchroom.” 

In addition to the student Lorax volunteers, Upper School teachers are assigned lunch duty this year. These teachers are meant to watch over the students and remind them to clean up after themselves and dispose of their garbage in the proper ways. “The goal is to make this process sustainable and for students to not need reminders from adults or their peers,” said Sarah Bates, head of Upper School, in an email to the Polygon. 

An article from ScienceDirect conducted a study on the proper ways to get people’s attention in regards to recycling and environmental change and found that social pressure—meaning direct words and phrases that show just how badly people are doing in regards to the issue at hand—was the most effective way of increasing recycling participation rates. In some cases, the article stated, participation increased from 50 to 90 percent. 

Poly has used social pressure as a way of increasing participation one time in a brief speech from Bates at an assembly early on in the year. She stated how Chef Louis Rossini found the garbage and food waste incredibly disappointing and demonstrated exactly how bad the situation was. “I think that when Ms. Bates spoke about this it really showed the extreme level of this issue,” said senior Ian Sonenblick. “It has urged Poly to try and turn things around.” 

“I think if we provide clearly labeled, clearly communicated methods of recycling and composting then I would expect Poly students to rise up,” said history teacher AJ Blandford, who is part of the sustainability service learning team at Poly and a lunch duty volunteer.

Poly continues to add new ways to create change in the designated lunch spaces on campus. “Trying to coordinate the logistics and supervision of the Loraxes is something that’s going to take a bit of…trial and error,” said Winston. “We weren’t at 100 percent today, let’s try to get closer to that tomorrow.”