As they walked past the utensil dispenser with their deli sandwiches on styrafoam trays, the fifth period lunch students grabbed 10 napkins each. Forty minutes later, most of those napkins ended up in the trash can, unused, along with snapple bottles, last week’s homework, food containers, and other recyclables.
The issue of recycling and environmental awareness at Stuyvesant is hardly a new one. In 1992, technology teacher Richard Realmoto, along with a crew of seniors, teachers, and custodians, devoted himself to developing a working recycling program at Stuyvesant.
Environmental efforts culminated in the 2007 formation of STRIVE (Students Taking Resolute Initiative to Vindicate the Environment), which was forged from two separate clubs, the Stuy Environmental Club and the Stuyvesant Green Club. However, in recent years, STRIVE has shrunk dramatically in terms of student participation and involvement.
“STRIVE was thriving my freshman year,” senior and STRIVE president Aarthi Kuppannan said. “The president [Marcella Rodriguez (’09)] was really on top of things. We even lobbied a congressman at one point.” But when president Rodriguez graduated, the club lost steam.
In recent years, one of the biggest pushes towards environmental awareness at Stuyvesant was undertaken by biology teacher Jerry Citron in 2009. Citron, with the help of his Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science class, began a recycling campaign that revolved around educational posters, directed at students, alerting them as to what trash went in what bin, and placing more recycling bins in easily accessible areas.
However, Citron said, “It failed because of finals.” Lack of enthusiasm and motivation over long periods of time, he said, inhibits even the strongest initiatives to make Stuyvesant greener. “Stuyvesant’s execution of the recycling program is not adequate,” Citron said. “There is a city mandate [Chancellor's Regulation A-850], and I don’t think Stuyvesant follows through with it to its fullest.”
Citron places the majority of blame on the participants, or lack thereof, in the recycling programs, rather than on the programs themselves. “A shift in mind of the students is the only solution,” Citron said.
He noted that the cafeteria was particularly disastrous. His trips there, he said, have led him to dubbing the room a “waste Armageddon.” In order to set forth realistic goals, he hopes to create a program to encourage waste reduction in the school’s largest eating space. Under this program, trash bins and recycling bins would be placed together in only one or two areas of the cafeteria, so that students would have to walk just as much to throw items in the trash as they would to throw them in the recycling. This system, he said, is modeled after those of college cafeterias he has seen.
Citron often thinks of the recycling issue at Stuyvesant in terms of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” an environmental essay written by Garrett Hardin, former professor of Biology at University of California, Santa Barbara in 1968. The parable tells the story of a community with an open pasture where members bring their herds to graze. Eventually, the herd grazing on the commons destroys the community’s pasture due to overeating.
“The moral of Tragedy of the Commons applies to Stuyvesant’s recycling issue,” Citron said. “Students aren’t directly paying for their napkins, and teachers for their paper. Teachers might feel that giving out more review sheets will cause their students to perform better [...] Since they are not paying for it, they’ll use more paper than needed.” Because students do not immediately see the consequences of their actions, Citron said, they are not likely to change their habits.
Undeterred by the limited success of earlier efforts, Citron, with the help of SPARK coordinator Angel Colon, is determined to bring STRIVE, and the presence of environmental awareness at Stuyvesant, back to full force. Colon said that STRIVE’s main goal this year is to work toward paper recycling under a new Department of Education (DOE) program. The program, he said, centers on the integration of paper-specific boxes, with small slots that cannot fit bottles, cans, or other non-paper goods, into the school, in hopes that it will lead to increased paper recycling and decreased contamination of recycling bins.
The initiative will begin on a small scale. “We’re starting with the faculty rooms,” Colon said, “because a lot of teachers aren’t very receptive to having these big boxes in their classrooms. Most of the boxes are still in the basement.” Others will be placed on the seventh floor.
“It’s not just students, but faculty that need to be more conscious,” Colon said. Hoping to later move onto the plastics, Citron notes the importance of having a good recycling program set up. “If the recycling bin is contaminated by even a few pieces of trash, the janitors can’t recycle it.”
Colon, through his position as SPARK coordinator, wants to get all of the clubs he oversees somehow involved in spreading environmental awareness this year. “Every club I oversee will have an environmental initiative,” he said. “It’s sort of a STRIVE alliance.”
Meanwhile, STRIVE is making a determined effort towards increasing awareness, as well as increasing action, this year. “We’re really trying to have a good Earth Day this year,” Kuppannan said. “[Under Rodriguez,] a lot of people showed up to Stuy’s Earth Day my Freshman year. We gave out canvas bags that you still see people using. We even had companies sponsoring us, giving out free energy-efficient light bulbs. But in the last two years, that didn’t really happen. So that’s one of our main goals this year.”
She added that STRIVE meetings this year are more focused on discussion and learning than in the past. “It’s really about knowing about environmentalism around the school and in the world,” she said. “We have a new initiative to make people more aware of the political and social problems behind environmental issues.”
In the end, she said, recylcing is just practical. “Stuy teaches you how to be smart, but doesn’t teach you how to be sustainable,” Kuppannan said. “We’re trying to make environmental friendliness feasible.”