kids recycling
The earlier kids learn about recycling, the more likely they are to continue recycling as adults. Photo: Shutterstock
The earlier kids learn about recycling, the more likely they are to continue recycling as adults. Photo: Shutterstock

At what age should kids learn how to recycle? As early as possible, say the majority of Earth911 readers. A recent poll on the site found that 86 percent of respondents think children should be familiar with the process by the age of 5.

The Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) agrees. They’ve teamed up with JASON Learning, a nonprofit organization that connects students to real science and exploration, to provide recycling-related curriculum for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Young children are sponges to suck in information and learn — the earlier, the better,” says Tom Knippel, chair of ISRI’s School Curriculum Task Force and vice president, Commercial Industrial at SA Recycling in Orange, Calif.

Understanding Recycling
The curriculum is designed to meet federal and state standards, and it offers teachers a turnkey approach to educating their students about different elements of recycling. The hope is that all students will come away with an understanding of the importance of recycling and that many will pursue interests in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Lessons plans are divided up by grade and teach the same core components in age-appropriate ways. For example, “Bag It!” is a lesson for the youngest students that focuses on learning about the plastic grocery bags at stores. After finding out how these bags are made and what it takes to recycle them, students calculate how many bags their family uses in a year. Then they plot on a map how far the energy “price” of those bags could take their car. An optional add-on activity includes crocheting strips of plastic bags into a bracelet, to show how resources can be reused.

“It’s teaching kids about recycling based on the variety of different components that get recycled,” Knippel says. “People think of recycling as the blue bin at their house, but that’s such a small part of recycling. When people understand things, they’re more apt to do them and participate.”

This poster from last year's Youth Video and Poster Contest won an honorable mention. Photo: ISRI
This poster from last year’s Youth Video and Poster Contest won an honorable mention. Photo: ISRI

Contest for Kids
In addition to lesson plans, the partnership between ISRI and JASON Learning includes interactive Web-based experiences, classroom posters, potential school visits to ISRI facilities and an annual recycling awareness contest.

Last year’s winners in the poster and video contest received a trip to Las Vegas, where they were presented with their awards and were given the opportunity to meet Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The 2014-15 contest recently launched and runs through Jan. 15. The theme is automobile recycling.

Real-Life Role Models
Not only does the ISRI-backed curriculum spread the recycling message to young people, it also gives them the scientific and technical background to one day pursue jobs in the scrap and recycling business — and inspires them to learn about careers they probably never knew existed.

“We look at what goes on in the world today, and one of the biggest disconnects I saw in education was the disconnect between book education and the real world,” Knippel says.

To help connect the dots between what students learn in the classroom and how they can apply that outside the classroom, ISRI and JASON Learning developed a Champions of Recycling program that highlights regular people with interesting recycling careers. Take Tracey Blaszak, for instance, who makes sure technological components are reused in a legal, safe and environmentally responsible way. Or Crawford Carpenter, who works in the paper and packaging industry for a company that makes a variety of products from 100 percent recycled paperboard.

Looking toward the future, ISRI and JASON plan to continue expanding and enhancing the curriculum they’ve built, adding more resources. After all, investing in teaching kids to recycle young is worth it.

“The patterns people execute in life are learned in childhood,” Knippel says. “It’s going to be a tough world if we’re not recycling in the next 20, 30, 40 years.”

Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries is one of these partners.

By Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.