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City Heights School Opens Recycling Bins To Parents

City Heights School Opens Recycling Bins to Parents

Above: The city of San Diego's recycling ordinance has been on the books since 2007. But some residents in the city's dense, older neighborhoods still find it difficult to recycle at home. City Heights youth are trying to make the practice more convenient for families, and make some money along the way. Video by Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego.

Aired 2/26/14 on KPBS News.

The city of San Diego's ordinance mandating recycling has been on the books since 2007. But some residents in the city's dense, older neighborhoods still find it difficult to recycle at home.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Twice a week, 13-year-old Leah Okello collects bottles and cans from her classmates at Monroe Clark Middle School in City Heights.

"When you walk around the campus or the area of City Heights there's a lot of cans all over the place," Okello said. "We need to make the world a better place by not putting cans everywhere."

But finding a proper place to dispose of recyclables in her neighborhood isn't as easy as walking out your back door and dropping it in a blue bin.

Okello's mom packs the family's bottles and cans into plastic bags and drives them to a commercial recycling center in the neighborhood. The inconvenience is common for those living in the densely developed community.

In the city of San Diego, curbside recycling service is free for those living in single-family homes or small apartment and condo buildings. But the owners of larger apartment complexes and commercial buildings have to pay private companies to haul away their recyclables.

More than 6,000 of those property owners have decided not to pay and forgo the blue bins and special dumpsters, according to city recycling manager Kenneth Prue.

Guy Mock, president of the City Heights Town Council, said there's a good chance many of those properties are in City Heights.

"Right now we have seven communities in City Heights that have the highest density of population. I think there are only like 12 or 15 in the city and we have seven of them," Mock said. "When you get that much density and that much population in a small area, quite frankly, it gets dirtier."

Okello and her classmates proposed opening their school's recycling bins to parents when a photography class organized by City Heights nonprofit The AjA Project showed them just how dirty their streets are. When they turned their camera lenses to their surroundings, the picture wasn't so pretty; the neighborhood's canyons and foliage shared the frame with litter and debris.

In 2007, the city passed an ordinance requiring most owners of large properties to provide a proper place to put used bottles, cans and other recyclables if tenants generate at least four cubic yards, or about a dumpster-full.

More than 3,000 of the properties that fall under the ordinance do not offer recycling. Some may have special waivers from the city's Environmental Services Department. Those without waivers face fines.

Another 3,000 fall into a regulatory middle ground. They don't generate enough trash to fall under the city's jurisdiction but may be subject to state law, which calls for recycling at buildings with five or more units. The city can't step in to require recycling at these locations, but recycling manager Prue said environmental services employees will reach out to educate these property owners on behalf of tenants.

And in the immigrant community of City Heights, education is half the battle.

"In our case, getting it translated into a number of different languages like Swahili, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, Hmong, Somali, Filipino," Mock said. "It's not easy."

Back at Monroe Clark Middle School, students have found the barriers to recycling in their neighborhood have a bit of a silver lining. They're cashing in on the bottles and cans they collect and will put the profits toward school clubs.

But first, Okello said, the students want to put the proceeds toward educating their neighbors about recycling. They'll print and circulate educational flyers in the neighborhood.