Tower investigates: Is PHS actually recycling?

April, 2024
Harry DweckLeila GuittonReed SacksMeiya Xiong


At the conclusion of the 2022-23 school year, long-standing custodian Gary Harris retired, leaving behind an enduring legacy of hard work and kindness in the PHS community. Harris was devoted to promoting recyling at PHS, a passion that began in a previous career at a paper company.

A majority of recylable waste at PHS ends up in the landfill as a result of PHS students’ general lack of environmental awareness when discarding garbage. These findings were part of an investigation by the Tower prompted by claims made by Harris about the substantial ineffectiveness in the PHS waste management system.

Throughout his tenure, Harris observed a reluctance among students and faculty to recycle; there were often recyclable pieces of trash in bins bound for the landfill and vice versa.

PHS Custodian Jennifer Gonzalez agrees with Harris, adding that this makes her job significantly harder.

“When I look at the trash, it’s mixed,” said Gonzalez. “Students don’t care and don’t recycle correctly.”

While Gonzalez and other custodians try to separate recyclable material from trash, she admits that often there isn’t enough time to sort through everything, so they are forced to throw out all the contents of the recycling bin.

Matt Bouldin, the Princeton Public Schools Business Administrator and Board Secretary, said that the most common factor that causes recycling to go to the landfill is when students improperly throw food waste in with recyclable material.

“A container of recyclable products contaminated with as little as one food product becomes landfill waste,” Bouldin said.

PHS AP Environmental Science teacher James Smirk has been a significant figure in collecting data on PHS recycling. He and several students conducted a waste audit concerning the PHS recycling process and came to a similar conclusion.

“Most of our recycling is contaminated with food waste. This creates a situation where recyclable material will be returned to the general waste stream. Most schools solve this by targeting cafeteria waste, but because of our break system and the number of students who eat in classes, focusing on the cafeteria has a limited impact,” Smirk said.

As a result of waste cross-contamination, very little eventually makes it to the district’s recycling processor, Republic Services Recycling Center. PHS has one recycling dumpster, compared to three landfill dumpsters.

Given the limited impact of sustainable waste management efforts aimed at the cafeteria, PHS has turned to other solutions. Jenny Ludmer, a program manager at Sustainable Princeton, focuses on educating the PPS community regarding sustainable practices in an effort to make its recycling more efficient.

“Education and outreach for everyone in the building is key to achieve a clean recycling stream,” Ludmer said.

Clear signs specifying which waste items to put in the recycling and which to put in the bin bound for the landfill are helpful in countering food waste contamination, it is not a complete solution; students often throw waste in the larger bin that they see first, regardless of the type of waste. Ultimately direct signs combined with a school-wide recycling education program is necessary to realize true progress in sustainable waste management.

“Consistent and sustained education and outreach for everyone in the building is key to achieve a clean recycling stream,” Smirk said.

Sylven Waldman, an incoming leader of the PHS for Climate Action club for the 2024­­–­­25 school year, acknowledged the importance of further education efforts.

“I definitely think that there’s a good amount of students familiar with the recycling process at PHS, but unfortunately I just don’t think it gets out to enough people,” Waldman said.

PHS students also participate in promoting sustainability through conducting waste audits, cleaning up waste, and performing community advocacy. In particular, the PHS for Climate Action Club has led an effort for more sustainability and an effective waste management system.

“We [have] recycled old scrap paper into new paper to make cards ... we’ve hosted bake sales, planned protests, made petitions, [and] donated to eco-friendly charities and initiatives,” Waldman said.

Several administrative developments have also been made regarding food waste. Every kitchen and cafeteria in the district is equipped with compost containers. PHS has also installed an energy efficient dishwasher. In 2021, the district began a partnership with Trenton Biogas to convert leftover food scraps into renewable energy. This school year, the partnership has collected over three tons of food waste.

Next year, Smirk and PHS custodian Leslie Vega hope that PHS will invest in clearer signage and more recycling bins. Moreover, a new class, Environmental Systems and Design, will be introduced next year; it aims to encourage students to improve the school’s outcomes associated with waste as part of a core project for the class.

Thanks to such efforts, PHS is certified with the statewide program Sustainable Jersey for Schools. Other actions taken by the high school include establishment of a Green Team to oversee sustainable progress and an Energy Savings Improvement Plan to facilitate improvements in energy efficiency. As a district, PPS has made significant progress regarding sustainability.

“In the summer of 2022, the district transitioned to greener cleaning with six different cleaning products,” explains the PrincetonK12 website. “The floor cleaner, glass cleaner, degreaser, hand soap, paper towels, and toilet paper used within PPS are all certified by Green Seal, indicating that they meet the highest standard for protecting the health of students and staff and the environment.”

PHS continues to make significant efforts in accordance with the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Program. Moving into 2024, progress will continue to build a more modern, efficient, and eco-friendly high school.

“PHS [sustainability] is renewed again at the Bronze level. Dr. Barnes Johnson [the district science supervisor] is leading the effort to add more actions to the certification this year, with the plan for Smirk to take it on next year,” Ludmer said.