Sixth Grade: Recycling and Zero Waste

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We face many environmental challenges, and while some areas of problem solving may still involve debate regarding best solutions, other areas, such as recycling, are more straightforward. Although many of us are demonstrating progressive awareness that a piece of trash may require assessment to determine its category and destination, we have to make much more progress.

In most communities and homes, recycling tends to focus on a few categories of waste, such as paper, glass, and plastic. The complete elimination of waste in concept and in practice requires much more planning and thought. The Zero Waste Alliance provided the following visual aids on its website to contrast our current efforts with the attainable goal of zero waste. (www.zerowaste.org)

If we gather progressive models, we can begin to address the issue of waste in a more comprehensive manner. If we bring these models to our schools and the education of our youth, the greatest influx of change will occur as they bring awareness and improved habits to their homes and communities. We can create a K–12 service learning community leadership role for recycling, managed and tracked by sixth graders, that educates and promotes lifelong habits of recycling, which will strengthen progressive care for the environment among us all.

Programs in Schools

Many schools have already begun significant work in addressing school waste with their students. A common starting point in schools is analyzing existing waste by collecting, weighing, and examining a day’s worth of garbage, which creates a base line from which to monitor progress over time. Students identify categories of waste and seek ways to recycle and reduce waste. Once they determine a course of action, they get the supplies they need and inform the school community of the new systems and processes.

Students have created skits to teach recycling information to their peers, infomercials on waste-free lunches, environmental rap songs, posters, and bulletin boards with reminders and tips. As students track their progress, their daily contributions accrue to contrast with their beginning waste data. The significance of these results would compound if schools tracked their progress in a common database.

Students who bring lunch from home can make it waste-free by using reusable lunch bags and containers. Foods such as apples, oranges, and bananas become healthier alternatives to packaged snacks. Cafeteria food service in schools pursuing reduced waste may opt for flatware instead of plastic utensils, family-style dining and/or compostable salad bowls. Students dump any leftover milk and place their cartons in a recycling bin.

Organics become a separate waste stream. Some schools send organic waste to composting facilities or farmers for composting or feed for pigs, creating significant reduction in hauling costs. Other schools take advantage of the educational opportunity provided by vermiculture—worm composting. Students in these schools become involved with classroom worm bins, creating compost for school gardens or for sale. Food service may join in with composters in school kitchens, adding to the supply of compost for school gardens.

Digging deeper into the cycle, some students in our country have school gardens in which they raise food for their cafeterias. Students who engage in this full cycle of growing and tasting their own food become more sensitive to the amount of effort it takes to grow it. The administrators of such programs typically find them to be cost effective, as produce is sold to the school. The bridge to environmental science is strengthened in schools that have teaching gardens, green roofs, and rain barrels to recycle water.

Although the emphasis of this writing is on a K–12 curriculum, our college and university communities increase our store of models. Universities and colleges in Illinois, Vermont, and California have either herds of cows producing all their milk, yogurt, and sour cream, their own hens for cage-free eggs, their own apple orchards, or their facilities management vehicles running on dining-hall cooking oil. These advanced-learning environments continue to design progressive models for our communities.

All these examples from our schools represent pieces of what could become a collective, comprehensive model disseminated nationally for work in all K–12 schools, bringing the best of all solutions together for all our youth and our communities. Programs often pay for themselves, and hauling costs can go down. Even more far-reaching are the benefits of experiential learning and instilling progressive habits among our youth—the influx of health as our children get more-natural produce and new foods to explore because of their labors and education. Overall morale typically increases among staff, teachers, and students with the adoption of these community-building programs. The schools in my database with the components above are in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Ontario.

Programs in Communities

Model community programs have developed in a variety of locations nationwide. If we were to bring these models to the national checklist of projects, to the attention of our children, and to the attention of our community members, we could gradually adopt and create processes for recycling different categories of waste, with the support of others who have already done so. Community members and committees could turn to a national list of projects to learn how others have solved a particular problem rather than wasting time or momentum wondering how others have done so. The optimum goal for all, over time, would be zero waste.

There are several approaches to assessing waste streams. When we have an item that we categorize as trash, we can check it against the national checklist to see how others are recycling it. We can assess community businesses by type, using model programs for specific businesses. We can assess products we purchase to determine the complete life cycle of the product in relation to the concept of zero waste.

States from my collection with components to contribute are California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Item by Item

Textiles are one category of waste. Beyond reuse as second-hand clothing, textile discards can be converted into fiber for use in new textile products or for wiping and polishing cloths.

Worn-out sneakers can be ground up to make sports surfaces. Scrap tires are becoming fill material in road and building projects, for playground pads, and tire-derived fuel.

Building materials are another category. Deconstruction models call for reusable material from demolition sites or homes under construction to go to construction-supply recycling organizations where contractors and others buy them. Homeowners and private contractors can also donate to these organizations. Construction and demolition recyclers handle items such as wood, brick, concrete, roofing shingles, and metal. Wood not suitable for reuse can be cut into firewood and kindling.

Composting organics—food scraps and food-soiled paper—creates a valuable resource that can go into landscaping and construction projects to replenish soil, reduce erosion, prevent storm water runoff from contaminating wetlands, lakes, and streams, and capture carbon dioxide for climate protection. Specific organic items for composting include:

  • Food scraps: fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, and bones, bread, other baked goods, pasta, egg shells, dairy products, and coffee grounds
  • Food-soiled paper products: paper towels and napkins, paper plates and cups, milk and juice cartons, pizza boxes, egg cartons, boxes from frozen and refrigerated foods, waxed paper and paper containers, coffee filters and tea bags
  • Other items: full vacuum cleaner bags, dryer lint, tissues and cotton balls, floral trimmings and house plants

Different collection models abound in our communities. Waste haulers may provide organics carts for pickup every week on trash day. Some communities sell backyard composters, and others subsidize the cost of home composters. Some communities include yard debris with compost collection; others separate these two categories of compostable material. Cities may own a compost site that sells compost and mulch. Yard debris can be collected year-round or seasonally. One community collects fall leaves curbside, mulches them, and delivers the mulch to residents free of charge.

Some cities have over twenty categories of “waste” for recycling. Some models have drop-off stations; some pick up over twenty categories of recyclable materials weekly. Some sort glass by color to save the cost of an intermediate processor; others have online guides with search options for instructions and information on recycling specific items.

“Discard malls” allow businesses that recycle and consumers to drop off unwanted items. Some have an area of a recycling center where reusable items such as furniture, books, and clothing are available for free to residents. Some cities have for-profit centers that include repair and refurbishment of items for sale. There is even a recycling incentive program to stimulate more recycling: recyclables get weighed on pickup, and based on the weight, those bringing the recyclables get reward dollars good at stores and earth-friendly product discounts.

There are communities that recycle:

  • organics
  • milk, juice, and drink cartons
  • cereal boxes
  • aluminum trays and foils
  • steel and aluminum cans
  • plastic bottles: #1,2,3
  • glass sorted by color
  • metal clothing hangers
  • mattresses and box springs
  • textiles
  • cork
  • batteries
  • auto and button batteries
  • fluorescent bulbs
  • paint
  • tires
  • used motor oil
  • scrap metal
  • construction materials, fixtures
  • concrete and asphalt

With a list of specific categories or items that communities are recycling nationwide, we can check off the things recycled in our own communities and seek models from others for the things we do not currently recycle. With a checklist managed in our schools, we would not need to educate our children about recycling, as they would be partners in promoting improvements and managing information regarding recycling in their communities.

Business by Business

Businesses generate different kinds of waste based on their products and activities. Models from businesses engaged in exemplary recycling programs can support us in bringing solutions to our community businesses.

Some food service models compost 100 percent of food discards from kitchen and dining rooms. Rendering companies pick up meat products and kitchen grease. There are models for hospitals, shopping malls, fairgrounds, festivals. Some correctional centers turn mattress cotton into a compost bulking agent. Some grocery stores take old flowers and greens from floral departments, waxed cardboard, preconsumer scraps from in-store cafes, wilted and spoiled produce, and corrugated cardboard for composting. In one grocery store model, organics that include spoils, out-of-date bakery, dairy, and deli items, old seafood, soiled paper products, and food spills go into waxed cardboard boxes and get compacted. A hauling company takes the compacted organics to a composting site where they are ground with yard trimmings and composted. The nutrient-rich finished compost is screened to remove contaminants and sold to farmers, golf courses, and land reclamation projects.

This information can raise awareness in our schools and beyond. As we build a K–12 service learning model, the parents and relatives of our children become involved—they are doctors, nurses, grocery store managers, business owners and their staff, and extended family members.

When we know how specific businesses are accomplishing replication-worthy results, we can suggest solutions or components of models along with contacts for additional support. With a checklist managed by schools, the trickle-down effect into our communities could happen in a number of ways. For example, some doctors’ offices and hospitals recycle outdated X-ray film. Maybe doctors, nurses, or hospital staff members take their children to school and look for model practices under hospitals on the national checklist of projects. They could take a question to their staff or inform the school that their workplace does in fact recycle such film, and sixth graders could update this information on the community checklist.

A checklist prompts us to ask and not assume as we update our community information. Students and others might ask their dentists if they recycle X-rays. If not, they can connect the dentists with organizations that do so. People could then read a list of dentists who are recycling and notice theirs is not on it. A simple phone call can help students update community information.

We should applaud the efforts of our hospitals, doctors, and dentists who are recycling. With models and resources that instruct, we are better able to make changes and take collective pride in the progress we make.

As our youth interact with businesses, they will learn best practices that will influence their choices in the variety of occupations they will hold as adults and bring wonderfully improved habits to the workplace. A nationwide education model secures the integration of these habits among all of us.

Product by Product

As we develop the habit of recycling and considering waste as resource, we will consider the waste-stream outcomes of the products we buy. Instead of waiting until an item is no longer functioning to wonder how we can dispose of it, we can begin at the beginning—before we even buy it. Many times I have found myself with questions about replacement parts or ingredients when shopping and used my cell phone to call the company—either in an aisle as I assess a product or in the grocery store line. This immediate feedback to companies helps inform their decision making for the manufacture of their products. What is important to consumers is important to manufacturers.

As our youth grow in understanding and working with the zero-waste concept, they can better consider the design of the entire life cycle of a product: can it be reused, recycled, or composted easily when the user finishes with it? Our youth will come to see that waste is actually bad design—the result of bad decision making. As they assess the full life cycle of products, they may begin to question whether they really need a product. As chemical waste comes to their attention as an element of our waste stream, they may search to discover the role toxics play in production. Shipping distance and packaging become further considerations.

End-of-life industry responsibility for products and packaging is an important objective in achieving the goal of zero waste. We can grow a generation of adults who are so well versed in the basics and habits of recycling and goals of zero waste that they demand the cooperation of businesses and manufacturers. These young people will eventually populate our management positions and bring greater awareness from an educational foundation that embraced many service learning leadership roles and contexts in their communities and sister-city relations. Our youth will gradually unite worldwide to address a multitude of overlapping issues that will inform their decision making at the personal and local level, with awareness of the refractions of their actions at the national and global level.

Our youth may become advocates who help curb excessive consumerism and encourage their parents to purchase, as financially possible, more-durable and repairable products. Our youth will ask questions that we may not be able to answer; they will not be satisfied with complaints or explaining why problems exist. They will seek solutions or solution makers and take action; they will want to do better together as a generation that rises above the performance of past generations. They will seek solutions as a direct result of their educational involvements in their communities. Expectations and inspiration will rise as solutions become tangible.

In such an evolving context, companies may respond more quickly to a changing market with modular designs to upgrade complex products or by leasing some products with full-service guarantees instead of selling them outright; responsible usage replaces ownership. Youth with comprehensive service learning experience will gradually enter fields of product design and manufacture. They will notice improvements they can make, be mindful of long-term solutions and planning, and incorporate environmental stewardship. Their scope and interests—their goals—will be larger than the realm of company profits.

As our youth organize and handle community information against a backdrop of nationwide models of excellence, they will take pride in their roles and contributions; they will see progress in which they have been involved and evidence of their work in the community and nationwide. Our children will become communicators, information seekers, and disseminators. If they get the opportunity to work with us as they grow, they will continue to work with us. If they are involved in constructive work with their peers as children, they will continue in constructive work with their peers as adults.

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