Teaching about Recycling in the Classroom

I love teaching young people about recycling. It is a simple action that students of every age can take to help people, animals, and the environment. And even though recycling is far from being a panacea for all our environmental problems, it is an excellent way to teach students to be conscious about where the materials they use come from and where they end up when they are disposed of.

Teach About the Benefits of Recycling

Whenever I try to promote a certain behavior, I start by explaining why it is important. I tell students how recycling prevents items from going to landfills, reduces our use of natural resources, and reduces pollution during the process of extracting and creating new materials.

For younger students, I often focus on recycling paper because students use a lot of it in elementary school. I explain how paper comes from cutting down trees and that when they recycle paper, it is turned into new paper. This means that fewer trees are cut down to make new paper. Then I will read the book The Great Kapok Tree, by Lynne Cherry, which explains how people and animals both benefit from trees and why we should protect them. For middle school students, HEART’s Justice for All resource guide has a lesson about trees titled “Tree Protectors” that can be used instead.

How Recycling Works

I have found that students are often curious about how recycling works. As educators, we can use that curiosity to craft engaging lessons that provide real world connections to STEM. I like to use videos to teach this information, and luckily, there are plenty of free videos online about how recycling works (this is my favorite). Before showing students a video on this topic, I explain that tons of paper, plastic, metal, and glass need to be separated at the “materials recycling facilities”. Then I ask students to brainstorm how the facilities might quickly separate these materials. Sometimes I give them some clues. For example, I will ask if there is something they are familiar with that would quickly pull out any metals from the recycling (i.e. a magnet). After they discuss the topic, we watch the video and find out how MRFs actually do it.

Recycling can also be connected to a lesson on the three states of matter (i.e. solid, liquid, and gas). Items such as metal, glass, and plastic are melted during the recycling process. For example, when a plastic water bottle is recycled, it is changed from a solid to a liquid and then back to a solid. When workers recycle plastic, they need to be careful not to get the plastic too hot because it will turn into a gas, which they cannot use. There is even a children’s book titled The Adventures of a Plastic Bottle, by Alison Inches, that explains the process.

Explain What Can and Cannot be Recycled

Knowing what you can and cannot recycle is often confusing. The rules differ depending on where you live and they can often change. One tool that can be helpful is the website Recycle By City, which lists the items that can be recycled in several large cities in the United States. If your city is not included on this website, this information is often on your local government’s website.

Once you know what you can and cannot recycle in your area, you can share this information with your students. There are a couple of ways that I like to teach this information. For primary-aged students, I explain how they can recycle disposable metal, glass, plastic, and paper. I bring in examples of each type of item from these four categories and discuss how they are similar and different. For example, I explain how both plastic and glass are often clear, but glass is hard and plastic is usually more flexible.

For older students, I play a game where they get in small groups or pairs. Then I give each group pictures of different items, and they have to guess whether the item can be recycled. After they categorize all the items as “can recycle” or “cannot recycle”, I explain the answers. Another way I teach this information is by playing a relay race. I print and laminate photos of things that they can and cannot recycle. Then I have the students line up in two groups on one side, and I put the photos on the other side. One at a time, a student from each team runs to find a photo of one thing they can recycle and then runs back.

After teaching this information, I have the students make posters for their classroom or home that show what they can and cannot recycle. This helps students apply what they learned and provides a helpful tool to remind them what they can put in the recycling bin.

Make Recycling Accessible for Everyone

One more important message that I teach students about recycling is that we need to make it more accessible. To teach this message, I explain to students that I have a list of the top five reasons why people do not recycle, but before I show it to them, I ask them to turn to their neighbors and guess what they are. After they discuss this question and share with the group, I show them this graph. Students are often surprised to find out that the main reasons people do not recycle are not because they “don’t care” or “are lazy”, but because they do not have access to recycling or because they have to pay money to recycle. Then we will discuss ways we change these systems so that recycling is free and accessible for everyone.

These are some of the ways I like to teach about recycling. If you have any additional ideas or resources, please leave them in the comment section below.

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