Waste Reduction & Environmental Education in Elementary Schools

Andrew Marlin & Christopher Mullen

The need for an environmentally educated society is greater than ever. Today, our schools are tasked with the all-important the role of empowering kids to be a generation that will right the wrongs of the past century when it comes to environmental stewardship. While the benefits that students and schools reap from environmental education are well-documented, a number of barriers prevent the successful implementation of such programs in schools. The literature review we wrote last semester addresses these barriers at length and includes our plans to overcome them.

In this capstone project, we taught a weekly after-school class at Prairie Vista Elementary in Granger, IN related to sustainability. The class was part of the greater “PVU” program at

Prairie Vista where students sign up for after-school courses in non-academic, hands-on subjects like yoga, chess, knitting, and origami. This spring, PVU had over 210 student participants spread out over 14 different courses. Our course—“Earth Crusaders”—was comprised of six second- and third-grade students.

An emphasis in our literature review was that hands-on and activity-based learning is the best way to get young students involved and excited about topics. Moreover, we discovered in the literature that effective environmental education must deal with crucial socio-cultural issues so that students are able to perceive the interrelationships between the natural world and humanity’s cultural activities. In essence, if the goal is to develop large numbers of learners who are skilled and dedicated environmental citizens, the learners must feel a sense of ownership toward issues needing resolution and a sense of empowerment with respect to helping with that resolution.

A study by Bonnett and Williams (1998) showed that while children appear to be very aware and in favor of recycling, action on this front is intimately tied to a child’s knowledge about recycling. Children in the study were particularly enthusiastic about the recycling of paper, as they were able to grasp the straightforward and logical connection between recycling paper and “saving trees.” They had more difficulty identifying or explaining the repercussions of not recycling other materials, such as plastic bottles or aluminum cans.

With these findings in mind, we developed a plan of action for how we would lead our PVU course. Once we learned that Prairie Vista had a recycling dumpster and a basic recycling program in place, we focused our attention away from the logistics of recycling at the school and instead towards recycling education and awareness-building for its students.

Ultimately, we decided the best way to carry out our goals for the course in light of our literature review was to have the six students in the course develop a pilot recycling campaign for plastic “baggies” and shopping bags. We believed this activity would be highly interactive and would empower these six students to become visible recycling advocates at the school. This activity promised to maximize the impact that we were able to have at the school—instead of simply teaching six students about recycling, our course was designed to inspire these students to look at a specific recycling challenge in a unique way. The students could then share their enthusiasm, knowledge, and campaign “products” about recycling with their peers long after our course was over. By the end of the course, these products included a two-and-a-half minute, student-acted video that explains the campaign as well as four recycling bins that were decorated by the students and designated for placement in the school cafeteria.

Our focus on plastic “baggies” and shopping bags for the recycling campaign was intentional. Within each classroom at Prairie Vista was a bin for recycling paper and a can for trash—there were no receptacles for plastics whatsoever. Rather than encourage kids to throw recyclable plastics into the trash where they may (or may not) be sorted later on, we thought that the recycling of plastics in specially marked receptacles made for that express purpose would promote a much more positive message to young recyclers who are in the process of developing recycling habits. Additionally, because plastic baggies are a ubiquitous item in elementary school cafeterias, we thought that a recycling campaign focused around them would give the students a highly tangible and visible item to mentally associate with the practice of recycling.