At a young age, children are curious and open to new experiences. As such, their early years are the perfect time to introduce them to healthy habits—like recycling. The importance of recycling is well documented and the subject of innumerable campaigns worldwide; however, we’d like to take the time to remind you why it’s especially critical to be teaching kids about recycling as soon as possible, both for themselves and for the sake of the global society they will inherit. If you are a school, you are integral to this aspect of their education, whether through curriculum, field trips or simple encouragement.
It’s great to teach kids that the environment is important, but helping them engage in meaningful action, like recycling, is an even better way of making the message stick.
The value-action gap—our tendency to express pro-environmental attitudes without coupling them with pro-environmental behavior—is a persistent hurdle for environmentalists and policymakers alike. Encouraging habits like recycling from an early age can help bridge that gap. If kids put in the effort to recycle properly from the start, chances are pro-environmental behavior will start to seem less like a chore and more like a necessity as they grow up.
Speaking of recycling properly, recycling education for the young’uns is not just about what the 3Rs are but how to do them! There’s a surprising amount of know-how involved, more so than what color bin to put cardboard in. Learning which plastics can and cannot be recycled, or why it’s essential to clean and separate materials to avoid contamination, is equally important in setting children on the path to more sustainable living.
In learning how to recycle, children are exposed to a host of other learning possibilities. Given that recycling is about a process—the creation of materials, their subsequent use, and their disposal, it offers plenty of facets to explore. Ecosystems, consumer culture, properties of different materials like plastic and glass: these are just some of the topics one could delve into with recycling as the starting point.
If this sounds too abstract for some young minds, recycling is also a tangible, visual means of understanding our present sustainability crisis. According to World Bank data, 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste are generated annually worldwide, a nearly unfathomable number. Creating opportunities for young students to visit recycling plants or trash centers can help them understand the sheer quantity of waste and put an image to these statistics. Check out this video of kids visiting a recycling plant in Northern Ireland.
However, something as simple as putting a kid in charge of collecting the recycling at home lets them see firsthand the output of a single family. This can reinforce that one’s consumption is not free or insignificant, hopefully deterring them from a mentality of throwaway use in the future.
Creative Outlets - Reusing
Moving away from the purely practical, recycled materials can also be a creative playground for kids. Whether it’s for collages, sculptures or models, reusing cardboard and plastic from the bins means that kids can experiment to their hearts’ content without their parents spending excessive amounts on new supplies. What better way to impart the message that we don’t need to be fervent consumers to create incredible things for ourselves?
Thinking beyond classic recyclables, challenging kids to transform old fabric into new outfits or embellish a scuffed piece of furniture can trigger the imagination and lead to the development of some handy skills.
The climate crisis is already our greatest global challenge, and its importance will only increase for the generation born today. Regardless of the necessity of discussing the issue, it can be overwhelming, especially for young people. Introducing the subject of sustainability in conjunction with a productive activity like recycling can make that conversation more empowering, giving kids hope that their actions as consumers can make a difference.
On the other hand, waste is an issue for governments as well as for individuals. Being well-versed in recycling practices from an early age will hopefully make students aware that they should demand recycling programs from their municipalities, lobby for their improvement and participate in them as citizens. We don’t expect children to become influential activists like Greta Thunberg, but she is certainly an inspiration for children to learn from.
If you are a school, you have a role to play in ensuring that your students can reap these benefits of recycling by making sustainability a focus of their education. This might start by upping your school’s recycling game, or—in these times of remote learning—urging them to recycle with their parents by participating in school-wide recycling challenges.
Recycling isn’t the only sustainability measure you can encourage. How about reusing? Getting students away from single-use products and towards reusable essentials is another way you can help. We’ve created a whole post about the benefits of using materials made from eco-friendly materials, including staples like portable coffee cups. Spoiler alert: these reusables make great gifts for your students!