Paaven Thaker, a 17-year old junior at Whitney Young Magnet High School, is just the sort of high achiever school administrators like to brag about. Thaker is on Young’s debate team, participates in theater productions, and gets straight As. She’s also copresident of the Environmental Alliance, a student club.

Last year she and two friends, Nora Sharp and Sarah Duffy, led the alliance’s effort to start a recycling program at their school. They began by putting recycling bins in the lunchroom. “They didn’t really work out at all,” says Thaker. “After lunch a lot of kids did put their cans in the bins. But it wasn’t an actual policy. People were spitting their gum out in the bins and dropping in other trash. It’s a horrible mockery to have recycling bins and they’re filled with potato chips.”

Members of the alliance met with Joyce Kenner, Young’s principal, to discuss the matter. “Ms. Kenner was very supportive, but she said there’s nothing much we could do on the school level,” says Thaker. “She explained to us that there’s a trash compactor in the basement and that Waste Management comes once a week. I thought, ‘Wait a minute–we’re setting out these recycling bins, and they just dump the cans and stuff with all the rest of the garbage!'”

Thaker says that as they talked with Kenner it became obvious that a comprehensive recycling effort would need the backing of the central office. “Ms. Kenner said she doesn’t have the money to run a recycling program–to have staff bring the recycling bins to a recycling center,” Thaker says. “She said we, the students, could do it ourselves. But that’s not practical. This is exactly the sort of centralized operation you need a central office to oversee.”

The students researched the matter and discovered that other cities, including New York, have mandatory school recycling programs. “If they can do it in New York we can do it here,” says Thaker. “New York’s an even bigger city than Chicago, and they’re handling all the practical ends of it. The thing is, you have to have a commitment. If Mayor Daley wants to be the environmental mayor, then he should get it started.”

Thaker says Kenner suggested they take their case to the Board of Education. “But their meetings were always in the morning, when we’re in school,” says Thaker. “That’s another issue. Why would they have their meetings when school is in session? Don’t they want students or teachers to attend? Are we supposed to take a day off from school? Anyway, the year just went on. Next thing you know, it was May and we had AP tests and finals.” The school year ended without the students having pressed their case with the central office.

They returned in September determined to do better. “Only now our scope had expanded,” says Thaker, “because we had learned a lot about the school system’s paper-buying policies.”

Victor Simon, Thaker’s environmental studies teacher, had shown the students the Office Depot catalog that teachers order from. “The catalog says they charge $88.47 for ten reams, or 5,000 sheets, of recycled paper,” says Thaker. “For nonrecycled copy paper they say it costs $65. It’s terrible–they’re giving teachers an economic incentive to use nonrecycled paper.”

The students went to see the woman at Young who takes teachers’ orders and sends them to the central office. “This is what’s really weird–the prices in the catalog bear no relation to what the paper actually costs,” says Thaker. “She said that in actuality we only have to pay $23.13 for ten reams of recycled paper and $22.87 for nonrecycled paper. So where do they get the figures they use in the catalog? I mean, why does the catalog say it costs $88 when it’s only $23? And if they’re going to inflate the cost of both kinds of paper, why make the recycled paper so much more expensive than the nonrecycled? Think about it. The catalog leads you to believe recycled paper costs about $23 more than nonrecycled paper, even though it only costs less than a dollar more. It’s almost as though someone doesn’t want us to use recycled paper.”

In October the students sent a letter to schools CEO Arne Duncan, pleading with him to set up a mandatory system-wide recycling program like the one in New York City. A month passed and there was no reply. They sent follow-up e-mails. On November 24 Lynne Michelle Moore, the school system’s director of facility maintenance, e-mailed back: “Arne Duncan forwarded your emails to me regarding your request for a recycling program at Whitney Young High School. I would like to invite you to a meeting so we can discuss your concerns in depth.”

Encouraged, the students wrote back and asked to meet on December 17. Moore agreed to the meeting.

To show that they were serious the students staged a protest at the board’s 125 S. Clark office on November 26, the day before Thanksgiving. About 40 students showed up, and for almost three hours they walked in a tight circle in front of the entrance, chanting slogans, waving signs, and asking passersby to support their cause.

A few passing motorists honked, and a few pedestrians smiled. But none of the board employees who streamed in and out of the office stopped to talk to the students.

“I thought it went well for a first time,” says Sharp. “But it was too bad no one came out to talk to us. They glanced at the students, and then went on their way.”

“Some of the employees who came out looked interested, but others just looked at us like we were cute and entertaining,” says Thaker. “It was condescending. I know you’re supposed to expect things like that when you’re protesting. But this was the Board of Education. You’d think that someone there would be mildly interested in this issue.”

Board spokesman Mike Vaughn says there wasn’t much the board employees could have said. According to him, any school that wants to can set up a recycling program. “They could do their own blue bag program,” he says. “That’s the sort of stuff they can talk to Lynne about. Lynne works in operations. She knows her way around the system.”

Thaker says it’s unreasonable to think a recycling program could work without the board’s leadership. “It’s not right for the central office to say, oh, just do what you want,” she says. “We’re not the ones who pay the haulers. We’re not the ones who hire and fire them. You just can’t have a system-wide program if it’s run by a few students.”

As for the paper issue, Vaughn doesn’t know why there’s a discrepancy between the price listed in Office Depot’s catalog and the price the schools actually pay, but he says it doesn’t really matter: “We’re paying the lower price no matter what the catalog says. When schools select an item they want to purchase they look in the catalog and find its item number. But when they punch the item number into the online system it brings up the price that Office Depot charges us. We always get the better price.” He adds, “I suppose Office Depot could produce a special catalog. But the catalog’s pretty thick, so I don’t know if they would do that.”

Thaker says Vaughn’s missing the point. “First of all, you’d think they’d demand Office Depot give us an accurate catalog if we’re doing so much business with them,” she says. “And it really does matter if the catalog inflates prices, ’cause the teachers who make the paper-buying decision aren’t reading the online price–they’re reading the catalog. If they think recycled paper costs $23 more than nonrecycled paper, then they won’t order recycled paper. Doesn’t the board understand? Teachers are choosing not to buy recycled paper because they think it costs way too much. I have three of my teachers who have told me they never ordered recycled paper because they think it’s too expensive.”

She and her allies intend to make these points at the December 17 meeting with Moore. “We’re not giving up,” she says. “I’m determined to have a recycling program in before I graduate.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.