The skies are clear now over Victoria, Texas. It has been five months since Hurricane Harvey blew through the city, and the media have long since run off to cover another crisis.
But gigantic piles of bottles and cans at local schools are still waiting for a trip to the recycling center.
Those recycling piles are part of PepsiCo’s Recycle Rally program, which offers rewards and financial incentives for schools to provide recycling drop-off centers. In Victoria – a city of 66,000 about 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico -- 17 schools participate in the program, making it one of the most active cities nationwide.
And this school year – especially this year -- those schools weren’t about to let a little thing like a Category 4 hurricane slow them down.
While Harvey caused extensive damage, it didn't impact the community's commitment to recycling, says Breanna Plunkett, education specialist at the City of Victoria -- Environmental Services. If anything, it energized the people of Victoria to work harder. It was something they could rally around, something they could do to give back to the planet – even as they struggled to recover from the storm.
“They didn't stop calling to get updates,” she says. “They didn't stop collecting; it’s almost as if the hurricane didn't happen for them.”
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What did stop, unfortunately, was the city’s recycling schedule. Trucks that normally collect the cans and bottles at schools and local businesses every Friday were re-routed to assist in cleaning up other areas of storm-ravaged Texas, and those trucks didn’t return until October.
That meant local schools had to find somewhere to store their recyclables until the trucks returned.
At Rodolfo Torres Elementary the situation required some creative thinking. Torres has a bit more room to store materials than other local schools, in that it has four recycling dumpsters instead of the standard one. But even before Harvey hit, those dumpsters were full.
And families that had stockpiled recyclables throughout the summer brought them in before the storm, meaning many bags had to be kept in school hallways at the height of the hurricane.
Space was limited after the hurricane, too, as it had wreaked significant damage on the school’s library, which had to be gutted after high winds broke windows and heavy rain soaked the carpet. The storm also damaged shelves and some of the library’s walls. And the building’s front door was so beat-up it wasn’t safe for children to use.
Given the damage, the school decided to delay promoting the Recycling Rally program. Students and their families, though, couldn’t wait to get started again.
In mid-September, Principal Crystal Rice launched in-school competitions to encourage donations, but only for kindergarten through second grade. Third- through fifth-graders had to wait another a few days to start their recycling competitions.
Staggering the donation periods turned out to be a good idea. The city had been under a boil water advisory after Harvey and most families had been drinking bottled water, so the amount of recyclables they brought to the school was considerably more than expected.
To be clear, it's not unusual for Rodolfo Torres Elementary -- or any other Victoria school -- to receive more recycling than it can handle. But between the usual community excitement over Recycle Rally, the extra bottles in town, and the long delays in collections, things hit a whole new level.
"We always have extra recycling that we don't have room for in our dumpsters with this program, but it has never been like this," Plunkett says. "Unfortunately, it's not something that's entirely in our control."
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To keep the situation manageable, many faculty and staff hung on to their home recycling until the backlog is better taken care of. Some families are doing the same.
Making things more difficult is the current limited availability of pick-up trucks. While arranging for double load pick-ups helps, it hasn't made a significant dent at some schools. Plunkett says it could be months before the mammoth recycling piles are back to normal levels.
To accommodate the extra cans and bottles, Rodolfo Torres Elementary stored the excess recycling in a gated area around the chillers of its air conditioning units, Rice says. The bags are currently stacked three deep, and that led to issues with the air conditioning during late summer and early fall.
"I had to go out there two weeks ago to move the recycling bags away from the chillers," says Rice. "We were having a hard time keeping our air cool. I feel like I've had to become a maintenance expert."
Rice says that without a note of complaint, though.
If anything, you hear pride in her voice. And that's part of what makes Victoria unique.
Other districts might complain after having to endure ever-growing stacks of bottles and cans. Some might call them an eyesore, or say they smell or attract bugs. But the school children -- and their parents and teachers -- remain as committed as ever to the program.
Once the storm clean-up is over, the normal routine of weekly recycling collections will resume. What’s driving the community is the desire to make an environmental impact.
“They feel like they're part of a bigger thing,” says Plunkett. “It's amazing, as a parent and an educator, to see our kids empowered like that. It's modeling who they are and showing them they can be responsible and they can make a difference.”