Teaching Students to Do More than Just Recycle

Back in the 1970s, the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” began finding its way into the American lexicon. Combined with the first Earth Day and the founding to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States was beginning to make a concerted effort to start saving the planet from human pollution and waste. “The 3 Rs”, as they became known, appeared at the forefront of this messaging.

In the time since, schools and communities have invested substantial amounts of time and resources both educating people about the value of recycling and creating programs to make the recycling of waste more efficient and ubiquitous.

The other two Rs, haven’t gotten the same attention. On the EPA’s own website dedicated to the campaign, the number of times the word “recycle” appears is the same as the combined number of times “reduce” and “reuse” are. The web address itself (https://www.epa.gov/recycle) even reflects this skewed focus.

But the reality is, recycling is last on the list for a reason: recycling is both expensive and potentially damaging to the environment . By teaching students to reduce consumption and find creative ways to reuse and repurpose otherwise disposable materials, there is less waste to recycle. In time, this paradigm shift would have a bigger effect on reducing the human impact on the planet and its resources than focusing on recycling alone.

Here are a number of practical and engaging ways for teachers to elevate the concepts of reducing and reusing for their students:

Conspicuously reduce waste in the classroom

  • Use zero-waste (or near zero-waste) school supplies – Teachers can make reducing waste a clear priority before students even enter their classrooms by choosing school supplies that have either no or minimal environmental impact. Simple decisions like stocking paper products made from 100% recycled fibers or providing wooden pencils instead of plastic pens are quick ways to minimize a classroom’s environmental footprint. With innovations like highlighter pencils, starch-based glues, and biodegradable tape it is possible to inch even closer to a plastic-free and reduced-waste learning space.

Don’t stop there, draw attention to these materials as examples of what eco-friendly choices consumers have in the modern marketplace. We live in a time where there are more eco-friendly products than ever; teaching students to make informed choices about the materials they consume (and the packages they come in) will lead to a more sustainable future.

  • National Skip the Straw Day – Americans use 500 million drinking straws a day! The majority of these straws are made of non-biodegradable plastic and contribute to the planet’s growing collection of human waste.

National Skip the Straw Day (on February 23 this year) is an effort to raise awareness about how simple, everyday decisions like using a plastic straw contribute to our growing waste problem. The beauty of this approach is that it raises awareness about reducing human consumption in a way that any student - from preschool to college - can comprehend.

  • Power down – For most educators, the idea of a power outage is a potential nightmare in the making: no lights, no computers, no projectors, no air conditioning!? But what if teachers voluntarily went without power and electronic devices for an hour, a period, a whole day?

Reducing waste isn’t always something that involves tangible objects; most of us consume resources like water and electricity in vast quantities without much of a second thought.

Have students calculate the amount of power their classroom uses in a typical day and use that information as the basis for a discussion about reducing that energy usage. Some schools, like Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, have even turned the energy-reduction challenge into a school-wide competition.

Turning reusing into learning opportunities

Rather than purchasing materials to supply your makerspace, get students to pitch in. Create a list of repurposable materials that students can collect and contribute. These materials can then be used to create any number of interesting and engaging student-driven projects.

By building this school-to-home connection, teachers can even inspire students to establish their own makerspaces at home. 

  • Create Household Hack Videos – Some of the most popular videos on YouTube are life hacks. These simple solutions to everyday problems often incorporate repurposed or reused materials in an effort to keep costs low.

Share some of these videos with your students and discuss the environmental impact of creating solutions rather than purchasing them. Then, ask students to then make their own household hacks.

If the technology is available, take it a step further and have them make and edit their own videos. In an age where many students obsess over their social media followers and video views, inspiring students to create their own life hack videos using repurposed materials is an easy way to promote buy-in and bring the reusing concept to life.

For teachers, recycling is often the low hanging fruit when it comes to teaching students about conservation and reducing the negative effect of humans on the environment. It is easy to point to the classroom’s recycling bin as a daily reminder or to encourage students to be the advocates for recycling in their own homes. Similarly, recycling lessons and activities are everywhere.

And listen, recycling is great. We should all do it and teach our students to do so as well. However, if the goal is to minimize the human impact of waste on our planet, don’t forget about recycling’s cousins reduce and reuse! A little creativity and ingenuity with your students today could be the key to a healthier planet tomorrow.

Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings and on his blog.

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