Earth Notes: Teaching students the 3 Rs in a throwaway world

By Brian Roche

Blue bins are ubiquitous in school. Emblazoned on the side, a familiar triangle of arrows is added for emphasis. Recycling is part of our daily lexicon in homes, offices and schools.

Yet, how effective are efforts to teach, reinforce and reward and acknowledge competency in the other Rs for school-age students? What is the most effective way to teach the 3Rs — Reducing consumption, Reusing materials, Recycling? In this throwaway consumer culture, is the message of efficiency, frugality and community getting through to kids?

Disposable pens and seemingly endless sheets of loose-leaf paper hypnotize young people into thinking resources are endless and available on demand. Teachers assign work as both administrative tasks (busy-work) and content and assessment so kids are under pressure to use those pens and reams of paper. Science fair and healthy-choice posters adorn walls and colored construction paper litter classroom floors the nation over. What to do with the remains of student work? Enter those blue buckets again.

Design is key to improve access and success in school-wide recycling programs. For instance, because many recycling buckets are the same general mold of plastic, placing trash baskets adjacent to them creates a high probability of contamination to the recycling stream. Either that contamination is removed and sorted or the school-wide haul might be rejected. Even in districts and towns that support single-stream recycling, care must be taken to comply with regulations. During a busy day, it’s easy to get a crumpled up juice box bouncing into a recycle bin.

Class time is a precious commodity for content instruction so teachers might divide up the task of recycling “steward” for a fixed amount of time — say one week. Four kids per group could find an equitable method for monitoring the bins for contamination and to take responsibility for a report on class compliance at the end of their shift. Teachers could turn this into a science project by finding ways to measure the weight of each category of recycling for each week and compare the effectiveness of each cohort. Making recycling easier and more effective is laudable and yet reducing consumption of energy and re-purposing materials relies upon changing behavior and habit — not an easy task.

Middle school students are especially social creatures. To make any aspect of a 3Rs program successful it must have a strong social component. Doing the right thing is important to teach from a purely philosophical perspective, but kids really latch onto the stuff that allows them to interact with each other and engage in friendly competition.

Educators must harness the social and competitive drives of students to achieve results in the reduction of energy consumption. School districts might consider a friendly competition between school buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosts a “Battle of the Buildings” through their EnergyStar website. It monitors and posts energy usage and gas emissions information from participating public and private buildings from around the United States. A resource like this forms a powerful tool for kids and schools to work toward lowering energy costs and ecological footprints. Give students an incentive to hunt for ways to save energy and chat about it in the cafeteria or on their favorite social media and watch energy costs plummet and school pride soar.

Students and faculty have begun collaborating in secondary and higher education to found clubs and craft curriculum addressing energy use. Unity College is a prime example. The challenge for elementary schools and middle schools rests with the faculty and staff. Younger students are no less passionate about these issues, but what they need is for adults to take the lead and incubate their energy and teach them how to organize, focus and then document and publicize their efforts.

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