Portage Park Elementary School, a Chicago Public School located in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago, began 2018 with a goal of recycling more and reducing landfill waste. Teacher Mary Hobaugh reached out to Seven Generations Ahead’s Susan Casey for guidance on starting a recycling program at the school. The plan was to start with classroom recycling, then take on recycling in the lunchroom.

 Three months after the program’s start, SGA checked in with Mary to see how it’s going. Mary answered a few questions that provide insight into starting a school recycling program.


Q: Why did you want to do something about recycling at Portage Park Elementary School?

A: Schools use a tremendous amount of paper every day in their classrooms and offices. They also create a lot of waste in the lunchroom with all the food that is thrown away along with the plastics, milk cartons and Styrofoam. I felt it was our responsibility to cut down on the waste and at the same time educate the students about their important role in being good stewards of the Earth. If you start teaching children from very young how to recycle and conserve, it will become second nature for them. We have had recycling in the past, but it was always associated with a club. Once the club disbanded, there went our recycling program. 
After going to a composting workshop at Thomas Waters School, I was given great advice by Pete Leki, the ecology teacher, who told me he asks the teachers in each homeroom to pick two responsible students to become recycling monitors for the year. They are responsible for emptying the recycling into larger blue bins and collecting recycling from classrooms that do not have a regular homeroom. The kids feel very important and take their job very seriously, rating their classroom’s efforts in not contaminating the blue bins. The students are responsible for explaining the recycling to their peers so that the kids aren’t just getting the message from grown-ups.

Q: What areas of the school does your recycling program currently address? Classrooms only or offices/hallways, too?

A: The whole school participates in paper recycling, cans, bottles, and plastics. We will start recycling in the lunchroom after spring break, which will include milk cartons and collecting fresh fruit for the food sharing program. I wish we could participate in the commercial composting program so that we can compost the paper plates and other items.

Q: How is it going? What have been the challenges? Has anything been easier than anticipated?

A: The biggest challenge is trying to balance my responsibilities between my job as a special education classroom assistant and my new found job as the liaison of the recycling program. I am lucky to have a principal, Maureen Ready, who allows me to have some flexibility in my schedule to address issues related to recycling. This flexibility will allow me to be in the lunchroom more often in the next few weeks to help with any kinks in our new recycling program. I also feel so fortunate to have an accommodating, wonderful custodian, Benito, in the lunchroom who is willing to take on the added responsibility for the good of the program’s success. I often talk to Benito about the upcoming program so he is aware of changes that will affect his responsibilities. I want to help in any way to make this an easier transition for Benito. As far as what was easier than I anticipated, that was how quickly the students took to their jobs and how awesome they have been since they started. Kudos to them.

Q: Who does what to make the classroom recycling system work?

A: The two recycling monitors are essential in the process, but the students in the classroom also take responsibility by not contaminating the bins with anything other than paper and cardboard. Communication between the monitors and the teacher about any concerns relating to the recycling is also vital. The monitors will address the class if they find too many infractions in the bin.

Q: How have the students and teachers responded?

A: The faculty thinks it is a great idea to incorporate recycling into our school. We all want to work toward being a zero waste school and educate our students to be role models who go out and teaching others about the great importance of being good to our Earth.

With the leadership of Mary Hobaugh, Portage Park School has made tremendous strides to reduce school waste. In the coming weeks, as the school adds lunchroom recycling and starts the CPS FoodShare Program, even more waste will be diverted from the landfill. Way to go, Portage Park!

The great thing is that all CPS schools can and should recycle. All schools are provided recycling hauling service and recycling dumpsters (the gray dumpsters). With just a few changes and some education, your school can drastically reduce landfill waste and you can bring your students up with recycling as part of their normal routine.

If you would like to learn more about recycling and diverting waste at your school, contact Seven Generations Ahead.