Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) and the Charles County Government have joined forces to launch an innovative recycling initiative called iRecycle Smart, focusing on the “big three” of recyclables: single-use plastic bottles, paper, and aluminum cans. The program aims to reduce contamination and increase the effectiveness of recycling within the school system.
Introduced to principals during a summer leadership institute, the iRecycle Smart program was disseminated to school-based staff before the new academic year. Teachers and staff will introduce the program to students through short, grade-appropriate instructional videos. Building service teams, who have received specialized training, will be responsible for emptying the designated recycling bins once a week unless student-led clubs take on the task.
Tim Emhoff, environmental education resource teacher at Nanjemoy Creek Educational Center (NCEEC), highlighted the importance of building service teams in the program’s success. Gina McCullough, an environmental education assistant at the NCEEC, pointed out that while recycling in the U.S. is not broken, it is “a little disjointed.” She emphasized that human error often leads to the contamination of recyclable materials. “When in doubt, throw it out,” McCullough advised, explaining that certain items like used pizza boxes and unrinsed food containers can disrupt recycling.
Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) have strict recovery rate standards for each bale of recycled material. Bales containing more than the permissible percentage of non-recyclable material are discarded, sending otherwise recyclable items to the landfill. This underscores the importance of proper sorting and recycling practices.
The iRecycle Smart program specifically targets paper, single-use plastic bottles and aluminum cans commonly found in schools. Aluminum is particularly important as it can be recycled indefinitely, taking about 60 days to return to store shelves.
Last school year, CCPS facilities produced approximately 3,785 tons of trash. They recycled only 207 tons of material, resulting in a recycling rate of just 5.2%, according to April Murphy, supervisor of operations for CCPS. Program organizers are considering a pilot program set to launch in January to explore the effectiveness of recycling in cafeterias at different educational levels.
To fund the program, the county government allocated $17,000, with $15,000 used for purchasing an additional 1,490 recycling bins for schools and $2,000 for promotional materials, such as posters and a blue bin mascot named Mr. Chuck Itin. The mascot was introduced at the Charles County Fair on September 15 and will appear at other community events.
The recycling bins and educational posters will be placed next to trash cans to encourage responsible choices. “Studies show that if given a choice, they will choose properly,” said McCullough. The program aims not just to recycle but also to educate students, staff, and the community to reduce, reuse, and rethink their waste management habits.