Environmental Topics to Teach: Recycling

The need to protect the environment has become more imperative with the advancement of technology.  Materials that have become common over the past century, such as plastics, are not easily returned to the Earth through natural processes.  Modern manufacturing processes place a considerable strain on the Earth’s capacity to meet our growing population’s desire for materials, even compostable ones like paper. The average child generates approximately 67 pounds of discarded school packaging waste every year.

Advances in technology have also been used to improve our ability to protect resources.  Throughout the past century, humans have found a variety of ways to reuse or remanufacturing materials that are scarce or inefficient to produce. In the 1970’s these efforts evolved into what we now recognize as the first systems of modern recycling. With about 75.5 million school-age people, the need to improve schools’ recycling programs is imperative. Although access to recycling services is a critical piece, education about recycling is just as important.  If recycling education is neglected, we run the risk of compromising the quality and effectiveness of the recycling systems and fail to help students understand the value of such systems. By reaching students on a daily basis and helping them to understand the recycling process, students have the opportunity to develop sound habits and connect recycling with an ethic of care for one another and our larger world.

Encouraging recycling habits in young students provides them the skills and expectations that our society needs to cultivate for sustainability, but also provides some exciting opportunities to connect environmental education with academic learning goals at all ages. Recycling practices and policies integrate the social and scientific spheres, offer opportunities to explore engineering, and to engage students in real world math, writing, and reading comprehension exercises.

With all learners, we suggest taking a systems approach to recycling education.  Asking students to remember a list of what is recyclable and what is not amounts to rote learning, which we know is one of the least effective ways of teaching.  Instead, it is helpful to give students an understanding of what happens to their recycling once it is picked-up.  The recycling truck carries materials to a regional recycling center or Materials Recovery Facility (abbreviated MRF, pronounced “murf”).  At the MRF, different types of materials are sorted, bundled, and put on trucks that will carry them to different remanufacturing facilities (e.g. Plastic milk jugs are sorted apart from plastic water bottles and from cardboard and aluminum cans.  They all go to different factories.)  The rules for what can and cannot be recycled within a specific community are often determined by what kind of materials the local MRF is able to process.  There are physical limitations and market limitations to recyclables a MRF will accept. On the physical side, MRFs are outfitted with different technologies to help with the sorting process.  These machines may not be able to handle certain materials, and if they cannot then the materials will not be okay to put in our recycling carts at home or school. On the market side, if the MRF does not have a buyer for a particular recyclable, like type 3 plastic or glass, then they have no place to send the recyclables and cannot accept them from the public.

Since most people are unaware of the role that a MRF plays in the recycling process, the recycling rules changing or differing from place to place causes confusion and frustration.  Giving students the opportunity (1) to explore MRF technologies or (2) to trace the path of a specific recyclable through the recycling loop are both great ways to help them develop “rules of thumb” for identifying what is recyclable in a way that does not rely on memorization.  Students have room to be creative, identify patterns, and invent solutions.  These activities also establish a foundation for understanding why recycling rules always seem to be changing or differ depending on the community.  New technologies are invented or installed at a local MRF. Products made from recyclable materials are being invented as well, which creates or changes markets.  Teaching recycling from a systems perspective allows for better education and opens the door to countless learning possibilities.  Students can apply this “system” approach to critically examine and propose methods to improve the effectiveness of their school’s recycling process by performing simple “recycling audits”, analyzing the data for patterns, and identifying what works well or causes problems.

If you are interested in further resources for recycling education or would like to invite one of the Ecology Center recycling education programs into your classroom, please contact katy@ecocenter.org.


You may find the following links useful as recycling education resources:

ReCommunity Lesson Plan

EPA Educator Handbook

Video of Ann Arbor MRF Tour

Case Studies from RRS

Recycle Ann Arbor Information Pages

Minnesota Materials Exchange

Collaborators: Katy Adams, Sydni Jourban, and Camille Hollins 

Published on January 12, 2017