The German School says ‘ja’ to recycling
Potomac school finds the value in recycling trash
An empty water bottle or paper torn from a notebook is viewed as ‘‘wertstoffe,” a German word meaning ‘‘material of value.”
And because it has value, about 80 percent of the school’s used paper and plastic ends up not in a landfill but in recycling bins placed in each classroom and near school entrances.
Other recycling bins collect used cell phones, empty inkjet cartridges and used batteries.
‘‘In Germany, we’ve been doing this for decades,” said Thomas Lutz, elementary school principal. ‘‘We try to be conscious of resources. It’s a sin if you throw something away that might [otherwise] be recycled.”
That kind of dedication toward recycling places the school among the top dozen schools in the county when it comes to being green, said Eileen Kao, recycling section chief at Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation.
‘‘A key factor in their strong recycling program is their commitment to it from the very top level,” Kao said. ‘‘That filters down to the teachers, staff and students. It’s an ethic they have, and understanding that saving the environment for the future is critical.”
Second-grader William Brauneis explains that understanding simply but accurately.
‘‘If you throw stuff away, it goes into a big hole and that’s bad for the earth. Recycled stuff goes on and on and on,” said Brauneis, 8, of Washington, D.C.
Kao’s department visits more than 200 county schools each year, and while all have at least a nominal recycling program in place, few meet the county’s stated goal of recycling about 50 percent of their waste materials.
‘‘[The German School] serves as a shining example of what can be done, what should be done,” she said.
The recycling lessons begin early at the school where nearly 600 students in pre-school to 12th grade learn in a multi-lingual environment.
Students become experts in what to toss into the recycling bins and what ends up in bins marked ‘‘restmull,” German for ‘‘what remains” — bottle caps or other items that can not be recycled.
‘‘It was hard for me at first. Now, I don’t trash a lot of things,” said Dominique Meier, 10, of Cabin John. ‘‘Even dirty paper towels can go in the [recycling] bin.”
The lessons become routine: The last child to leave the classroom turns off the lights and shuts the door to prevent heat or air-conditioning from escaping the classroom. At night, students shut down computers and other electronics that consume energy even in sleep mode.
‘‘An unoccupied room with the lights left on, that’s a big mistake,” Lutz said. ‘‘You have to teach this, but children need to understand that energy is produced somewhere and that pollution comes from that process. We don’t want to waste the energy, nor the tuition money for lights left on [needlessly].”
The school takes other practical steps to reduce waste and save energy. The cafeteria uses only washable plates, cups and utensils, never the disposable versions. And students need only look up to the roof of the elementary school to see grasses waving in the sun.
‘‘The roof’s been planted for at least eight years,” Lutz said, adding that ‘‘green” roofs are common in Germany as they keep the buildings cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
By high school, however, students are less enthused about taking that extra step to recycle an old test paper or plastic bottle. So the school uses twice-a-year assemblies to promote the program.
‘‘We have to step it up as they get older,” Lutz said.
Last week, the county hosted one very special assembly at the school that featured a magician — who uses recycled materials in his act, naturally. The show is brought to a dozen schools each year to reward them for their outstanding recycling efforts, Kao said.
‘‘It’s all about spreading the word,” she said.