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Because You Asked: How Can I Teach My Kids the Importance of Recycling?

By Recyclebank |
Instilling a love for the outdoors at an early age is one of the best ways to encourage sustainable habits, like recycling.

Dear Recyclebank: I’ve always known that recycling is better for the environment, and filling up landfills is not a good idea, but now I’m faced with convincing my teenage son. He read somewhere that recycling produces more pollution than creating new products, and now he refuses to recycle. How do I convince my hardheaded son the importance of recycling and other environmental efforts? –Rachel K.

Dear Rachel: If, as the incomparable Whitney Houston claims, children really are our future, we understand your desire to make sure they understand the importance of protecting and improving the world they’ll be inheriting. For this reason, it’s important to teach them the value of being environmentally responsible and to involve them in the actions we take to protect our environment. And as we head into a new year, there is no time like the present to get the whole family involved in recycling, energy conservation, and other sustainable habits.

To find out how parents and educators can best educate and involve kids in sustainability, we spoke with James McGirt, Manager of Education Programs for Project Learning Tree, an organization that advances environmental literacy and promotes stewardship via education, professional development, and curriculum resources.

“A good way to start is to make young learners more aware of how their daily actions can improve or hurt the environment,” he says. “It’s of paramount importance to clearly and tangibly illustrate to them that things they do, such as throwing away trash every day, impact the environment, and ways the amount of waste they generate can be reduced.”

McGirt says that one of the best ways to instill environmental awareness is to raise kids who love to be outside. Kids who play outside, ride bikes, garden, swim in lakes and oceans, and camp will grow up to be adults who make environmentally sound choices. Gifting them with a love for the great outdoors also will put a positive spin on sustainability, rather than burdening kids with doomsday facts and future scenarios.

As for those teens that might be less than enthusiastic about participating in sustainability, McGirt says, “I routinely express to teens that I believe that as human beings we have a moral obligation to make the world a better place than how we found it.” He says that many people — including teens — get caught up by the enormity of the environmental challenges and end up losing sight of the fact that it’s all about the little daily steps we can take.

“It’s important to give teens the opportunity to serve as leaders in the quest for environmental awareness and action,” says McGirt.

And more specifically for your “hardheaded” son, Rachel: Since he thinks that adding to landfills is better than using the energy to create products from recyclables, it might help to point him to information about how landfills produce harmful greenhouse gases, and to stand by the fact that recycling goods does save energy, raw materials, and natural resources. He’s not alone in questioning the recycling process, which is why we’ve responded to his exact concern before.

No matter where your kids are in the recycling learning process, there are fun ways to get your kids involved in recycling and reducing waste at home:

  • Let them pick out a fun reusable water bottle to use instead of buying bottled water. Having a personalized style helps kids (and adults) feel a sense of ownership over their sustainable choice.
  • Involve them in sorting the recyclables. Little kids can look for the recycling symbol or the plastic number codes on packages.
  • Start a compost pile in the backyard and let the kids be the ones who turn the compost tumbler or add scraps. It’s a gross-but-cool learning experience to watch how the organic waste decomposes, and to spot the occasional worm helping the process along.

Take a household waste-reduction challenge: Set a goal to see if you can reduce the amount of landfill-bound trash that your family generates each week. Weigh your trash as a baseline, then try to recycle, reuse, or shop smarter each week to throw out less and less trash. If you succeed, have a family celebration — an eco-friendly one, of course, like riding bikes to a favorite ice cream place!

How are you helping to educate and involve your kids in being more sustainable? Share your tips in the comments.
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  • Bradley B. 3 days ago
    It likely wouldn't help to argue with a teenager, but we can certainly give them a challenge or two to help build an awareness. I've heard a good eye-opening challenge of having students carry a trash bag with them for an entire day to keep all their discards. Perhaps he would realize just how wasteful he is & consider waste reduction. That's an overall win as it'be better than recycling.
  • Sue C. 10 days ago
    I think kids can learn by example by seeing how their parents recycle. This helping the environment and continuing the cycle. Also it should be reinforced in school as well if at all possible. I've let my kids help with the growing of vegetables in clay pots by putting the seeds in the soil and water them during the hot summer months. They were quite ecstatic by the results of their efforts which produced many vegetables which they could actually eat like midget melons; tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. All part of the learning process.
  • wayne w. 11 days ago
    Recycling is needed !!! Hopeful that more organizations will take a serious look at recycling and reuse strategies. We finally have recycling some local businesses here.
  • Elizabeth G. 11 days ago
    I don't have kids, but I got my whole family into recycling because of this website. We go to the recycling center once a week to recycle. My mother saw a guy putting a pizza box into the cardboard bin and said "you can't recycle pizza boxes". I was proud. It just makes you feel better to recycle.
  • Gina L. 12 days ago
    It is hard to watch the waste that goes on in schools. Districts need to work harder on the waste and recycling.
    • Bradley B. 3 days ago
      Yes agreed. I'm an elementary custodian who took my county's master recycler program a few years ago here in Oregon. I'm passionate green schools programs & efforts of sustainability. We're fortunate to live in an area that has commercial composting of food waste available, however my school district hasn't done much to participate. It wasn't easy convincing them to allow my school to do so after a few unsuccessful attempts at other schools. In 2014, my elementary won a national title in the KAB 'Recycle Bowl' as 'Waste Reduction Champion'. 71.5% in lbs. of all our school's discards didn't go to the landfill & were recycled or composted. I'm now at a new school & moving in the same direction with implementing the program.
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