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Think Green! It's increasingly important, and your students will be eager to help!

Your school can't save the planet on its own, but you can be part of the solution by thinking big, yet starting small. As a new teacher, there's a lot to get to know about your school. Finding out where it stands on the Green revolution is a great step in the right direction.

It's easier than you think. Check out ways you, as a new teacher, can make a difference to your school's recycling activities.

Recycling 101

Setting up a recycling program if one doesn't already exist is a great way to establish your own niche in your new school.

It's easy to get started, and you may be surprised by how enthusiastic your class is to participate. Most of your students probably have seen a fair amount of information about recycling, reusing and reducing during their short lives. However, they may not be recycling at home. By starting to recycle at school, hopefully they will help change that.

To develop a successful recycling program in your school, you'll need to get the other teachers and the administration on board. Find out who else in your school is passionate about recycling and is willing to help!

Recycling is a win-win for your school and for the environment. It's well known that recycling and reusing resources makes good sense. It prevents waste of potentially useful materials, reduces the use of raw materials and lowers energy use, which in turn, helps decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

In the process, your school might even earn cash or supplies by collecting and recycling items such as toner cartridges, old cell phones and rechargeable batteries.

Important reasons to recycle:

  • It saves money through reduced use of goods.
  • It reduces the amount of waste in landfills.
  • It helps lower pollution.
  • It promotes conservation of natural resources.

Getting Started

The first thing you need to do is get your class excited about how they can make a difference at school, and then you have to get the word out.

Have your class design eye-catching posters to hang around the school, or elsewhere in the community. Let them come up with information for a class newsletter that can be sent home to their families about the plans.

Create an action plan:

  • Decide what to recycle.
  • Select students to run the program.
  • Choose a reputable recycler for your collected recyclables.
  • Choose recycling containers.
  • Set up a collection system.
  • Determine how to collect and store recyclables.

For the lower grades, it's important to make it clear what recycling is, what can be recycled and why it's so important. Give them the basics. Explain that recycling means to process old, used items so that the material can be reused, or used to make new products.

Some of the most common items recycled include glass, plastic, newspapers, cardboard, aluminum cans, used motor oil, and batteries.

By the time students reach third grade or so, they won't need as much basic information. Instead, you can have them brainstorm ways to implement a recycling program at school and home. One way to motivate the older students is through competition. Hold contests between grade levels or classrooms to see who can recycle the most.

Elmer's Glue Crew Recycling Program is one such program you should check out. Through this, schools send in their empty glue bottles and glue sticks. More than 750,000 students from all 50 states participated in this program during the 2008-2009 school year. You and your students can earn prizes and Elmer's products while making a positive impact on the environment.

Recycling Facts

  • Seventy-five percent of all garbage is recyclable.
  • Every ton of paper recycled saves up to 17 trees (Source: Planet Pals).
  • Recycled paper requires 50 percent less energy, and up to 75 per cent less water than making it from new fiber.
  • The energy saved from recycling one ton of aluminum is equal to the amount of electricity the average home uses over 10 years. (Source: Keep America Beautiful).
  • Americans go through 28 billion plastic bottles every year.
  • Nearly eight out of every 10 bottles will end up in a landfill. (Source:
  • One gallon of used motor oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of water.
  • Approximately 100,000 marine mammals die yearly from eating plastic bags that end up in the rivers, streams and oceans.
  • It takes 1,000 years for plastic to fully decompose.

Links to resources/good sites for elementary recycling:


You can improve your students' environmental literacy by making every subject you teach a green learning moment.

Take math for example. There are numerous activities you can do with your class that will allow them to use their math skills while talking about recycling.

Create math word problems that incorporate recycling ideas. For example:

  • When John washes the dishes by hand, he uses seven gallons of water, but if he uses the dishwasher he would only use four gallons. How much water does he save when he uses the dishwasher?
  • When Mary brushes her teeth, she leaves the water running and uses four gallons of water. If she turns off the water while she brushes, she only uses one gallon of water. How many gallons can she save by turning off the water while she's brushing?

These problems can be made more complex for older grades by using multiplication and division word problems. For example:

  • Tom drinks three water bottles every school day. How many bottles does he drink each week or month? Have the students figure out how many days in a school quarter or year and then have them determine how many bottles Tom is adding to the landfill.
  • The Jones family drinks two gallons of milk each week. Have the class determine how many empty jugs the family is recycling each year. Get them to multiply it by 18 years to give them an idea how many milk containers the family will use before the oldest child goes off to college.

For another activity, bring in common items that can and cannot be recycled such as:

  • aluminum can
  • banana
  • cigarette butt
  • glass bottle
  • leather boot
  • paper bag
  • plastic 6-pack rings
  • plastic jug
  • Styrofoam cup
  • wool sock

What do all the items have in common? If your students are too young to figure out the answer to the question, you can share with them that each of the items will likely end up in a landfill one day.

Next, ask them what will happen to these items when they end up in the landfill? How long do they think these things will stay there? Do they disappear/disintegrate/degrade immediately? Or will they continue to take up space in the landfill?

Ask the students to guess how long (how many weeks, months, or years) each item might last if dumped in a landfill. Here are estimates from the Bureau of Land Management:

  • banana – 3 to 5 weeks
  • paper bag – 1 month
  • wool sock – 1 year
  • cigarette butt – 2 to 5 years
  • leather boot – 40 to 50 years
  • aluminum can – 200 to 400 years
  • plastic 6-pack rings – 450 years
  • plastic jug – many years
  • Styrofoam cup – many years
  • glass bottle – many years

Green Curriculum

When planning units for reading or language arts, take the opportunity to include an environmental lesson. Use related words for fill-in-the-blank sentences. These words can include: conserve, planet, reuse, recycle, reduce, garbage, landfill.

Have your students find the words in the dictionary and then write definitions. Suggest they pick one word to illustrate through a diorama, picture, map, or other creative idea they might have.

Let students figure out words based on pictures you show them, then give them worksheets to match recycling-related words with pictures. This will give you a great opportunity to start a class discussion about various recycling efforts in place at school or in their homes.

Give your class open-ended sentences they must complete such as:
At school, I can recycle more paper if I...
At home, my family can recycle more if we...
If I knew of someone who was not recycling, I would encourage them by...

Classroom Tips For Going Green

Top 10 Reasons to Recycle

  1. Reduces waste
  2. Decreases need for landfill space
  3. It's good for the environment
  4. Reduces water pollution
  5. Saves energy
  6. Prevents global warming
  7. Protects wildlife
  8. Saves trees
  9. It's good for the economy
  10. Creates jobs

  1. Reduces Waste
    The average American discards four pounds of garbage every day. Most of this trash goes into to landfills, where it's compacted and buried.

    Your class can make a big difference by recycling just one thing it uses. If your students chose to recycle every plastic bottle they used they would save the landfill plenty of space. Forty billion plastic bottles are produced every year in the United States, mostly for beverages, and two-thirds of them end up in landfills.

    It takes just a dozen 20-ounce plastic bottles to produce enough fiber for an extra-large T-shirt. Half of all polyester carpet manufactured in the United States is made from recycled soda bottles. Recycled plastic is also made into plastic lumber, clothing, flowerpots, insulation for sleeping bags and ski jackets, car bumpers and more.

  2. Decreases Need for Landfill Space
    Recycling preserves existing landfill space and prevents the need for more. Landfills exist to manage trash so it is isolated from groundwater, kept dry, and will not be in contact with air.

    It takes about five minutes to unload an 18-ton trailer full of garbage. As many as a dozen trailers may be unloading at the same time depending on size of the landfill. Every day, we add about 2,000 tons – or 4 million pounds – of garbage to landfills in the United States!

    Have your students figure out how many ounces or pounds of trash they throw out in the cafeteria every day. Then have them brainstorm ways to reuse or recycle things from their lunch, such as bringing their snacks in reusable plastic containers rather than in plastic baggies, or bringing reusable bottles for juice instead of plastic juice packs. Have them keep track all year so they can to see what their class alone is preventing from ending up in the local landfill.

  3. It's Good For The Environment
    Recycling requires far less energy, uses fewer natural resources, and keeps hazardous materials out of the environment.

    If you use cell phones as an example, your class will see how dangerous chemicals pile up around us every day. The average American gets a new cell phone every 18 to 24 months, making old phones – many that contain hazardous materials like lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and arsenic – the fastest growing type of manufactured garbage in the nation. Americans discard 125 million phones each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who also estimate that less than 2 percent of all old cell phones get recycled.

    Suggest to the class that they figure out a way to collect and recycle cell phones in your community. Used phones are often accepted by the companies that manufactured them as well as many electronic stores. Your class might want to donate old phones to an established charity or program.

  4. Reduces Water Pollution
    Despite environmental regulations in place to protect our streams, lakes, and wetlands, trash and litter often end up in these surface waters. In addition, some of the harmful chemicals in our garbage from landfills can seep into the ground, and eventually reach the oceans and other bodies of water as well as our groundwater.

    Every year, 14 billions pounds of garbage, sewage and sludge are dumped into the world's oceans. Nineteen trillion gallons of waste also enters the water annually.

    Turning trees into paper is the most water-intensive industrial process in the United States. Paper recycling mills nearly always use less water and they don't pollute the water nearly as much.

  5. Saves Energy
    Making and processing raw materials used to manufacture new products takes a lot of energy. It almost always takes less energy to make a product from recycled materials than it does to make it from new supplies. Reducing the need for these processes achieves huge savings in energy.

    Recycling aluminum cans, for example, saves 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from raw materials. One recycled aluminum can saves enough energy to watch television for three hours.

    Recycling one glass bottle or jar saves enough electricity to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours and recycling one ton of plastic saves the equivalent of 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of gasoline.

    The amount of energy saved differs by material, but almost all recycling processes achieve significant energy savings compared to production using new resources.

    Encourage the class to collect as many aluminum cans as possible. There are a number of ways to earn cash for cans. The class could then find a worthy charity to donate their earnings to. Have your class challenge another one in the school to see which one can recycle the most aluminum cans in a week. The winning class might receive a percentage of the other classes' proceeds.

  6. Prevents Global Warming
    The connection between global warming and recycling provides yet another important incentive to recycle. According to the EPA, recycling cuts global warming pollution by the equivalent of removing 39.6 million cars from the road.

    Americans produce 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gasses. Each American contributes about 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. Recycling one ton of glass is equal to an energy savings of more than 300 percent, and it lowers carbon dioxide emissions by 3.46 tons.

    Explain to your students how everyone can make a difference. By bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, choosing not to buy a piece of fruit out of season, or buying a compact fluorescent bulb instead of an incandescent one, you're helping cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

  7. Protects Wildlife
    Birds, mammals, and reptiles can be injured or killed by the trash we throw away, especially because some types of trash don't easily break down. This garbage stays in the environment as a threat for decades.

    Using recycled materials reduces the damage to forests, wetlands, rivers and other places essential to wildlife.

    Plastic bags that end up in the trash and helium balloons that are released into the sky are very harmful to wildlife. These often end up in bodies of water, where they are mistaken for food and eaten by wildlife, in turn killing many animals.

    Have your class come up with ways to reduce the number of bags they use. If possible, take them on a walking field trip near school to collect plastic bags, as well as other garbage they see.

  8. Recycling Saves Trees
    Even though we know that paper is an important part of our lives, we may not be aware that our careless usage of paper contributes to the accumulation of landfill in the country.

    The production of paper uses more and more trees, which are an essential part of the environment. Half the earth's forests are gone, and up to 95 percent of the original forest area in the United States has been cut down.

    Encourage your class to reuse paper. If they make a mistake or want to start over with a project, have them draw or write on both sides of the paper. Save used paper for projects to be done at a later date. Make sure that all paper they don't want is put in a classroom recycle bin.

  9. It's Good for the Economy
    According to EPA, it's much more economic to recycle then to throw your trash in the dumpster. Recycling programs cost consumers between $50 and $150 per ton, while trash programs run $70 to $200 per ton.

    Financial benefits of recycling include:

    • less need for new land?lls
    • saving energy
    • reducing greenhouse gas emissions
    • reducing air pollution and water pollution
    • conserving forests

    By recycling, the United States will need less foreign-produced oil. At current recycling rates, we save 5 billion gallons of gasoline a year. With increased awareness about recycling, demand for recyclable and recycled products continues to grow.

  10. It Creates Jobs
    Recycling in the United States is a multi-billion dollar industry. There are more than 56,000 recycling and reuse-related businesses employing over a million workers nationwide.

    There are six times as many jobs in the recycling industry as there are for those who manage and process our trash. The recycling industry employs more workers than the auto industry.

    Ask each student to come up with a job for him or herself that could be created as a result of the recycling industry.

Green Class Projects

One way to teach your class important environmental lessons is to make it fun! Recycling and finding new uses for old items is good for the environment. But this is also when creativity can come into play.

Here are some artistic ideas for recycling modern materials.

Recycle Blue Jeans
Have your students bring in old jeans that otherwise would end up in the trash or being donated to recycle them in class. Some of the things they can make are: placemats, pot holders and pencil cases.

Use old jeans to make unique placemats. Incorporate the pockets as part of the placemat to hold silverware in place.

Denim is strong enough to handle the hottest pots and it looks great in the kitchen. Line with fleece, quilt batting or even squares cut from old sweat shirts. You can include the pocket if you want.

Denim is also a great way to store pencils, erasers, scissors, and the like rather than in traditional pencil cases, which tend to wear out before the end of the school year. Have the class cut and glue Velcro strips to rectangular denim pieces.

Cardboard Egg Carton Uses
Ask your class to bring in empty egg cartons to be used for various recycling projects.

Make plant containers or seed starters. Poke a few small holes in the bottom for drainage. Fill part way with potting soil. Plant seeds and set in a sunny window.

Create a jewelry organizer. Paint or cover the used carton with fabric. It can then be used to store small pieces of jewelry, rings, earrings, chains, cuff links, etc.

Projects with Berry Containers
Have your students collect and bring empty plastic berry containers for great paper mache projects. The square containers are just the right size to hold cocktail napkins, coasters or small items on the bathroom counter. This is a wonderful project your class can make to give to their parents for Christmas or Hanukkah.

The Life History of "Stuff"
By tracing the origins of everyday products such as the bikes they ride to school, their favorite sneakers or their old backpacks students develop an understanding of the impact that the production, sale, and disposal of commonly used goods have on the environment.

Nike has a recycling program that uses every part of the old shoes it receives to create surfaces that include running tracks, tennis courts and the padding for basketball court floors.

More than 15 million new bicycles are purchased every year in the United States. Obviously, this creates a tremendous number of bikes being sent to landfills. There are numerous organizations that will accept and refurbish used bikes. For information about what to do with old bikes check out the International Bicycle Fund.

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