The Importance of Teaching about Waste Management

According to the EPA, the US produced 292.4 million tons of waste in 2018. That’s 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day! Of this, only 32% was either recycled or composted. Where does all this waste go? What is the impact of all this waste building up? 

Environmental literacy is all about the relationship between humans and nature. It involves understanding environmental issues and how to “support ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable communities for present and future generations” (A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, 2015). Gaining a better understanding of how we manage all the waste we produce can help us develop more sustainable and equitable solutions. 

This week, we are excited to share information on waste management. We’re highlighting classroom materials, experiential learning programs, and other resources that will improve your understanding of waste management and help you and your students become more environmentally literate.  Waste management can be defined as the actions and process of managing waste from its creation to its disposal. It is important to teach students about waste management because it is a foundational aspect of our relationship with the environment. 

Why Should Students Learn About Waste Management? 

  • It makes them more aware of their surroundings 
    • They notice trash and recycling bins in their neighborhood 
    • They take note of all the trash in public parks/beaches 
    • They have greater respect for nature 
    • They see the immediate human impact on natural spaces 
  • They become more conscious consumers 
    • They can learn about ways to reduce their consumption by reusing items such as glass bottles or clothing items 
    • They start to think innovatively about ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle 
  • They become aware of our environmental crises 
    • They become aware of the world’s finite resources 
    • They learn about their responsibility towards effective waste management 
  • They become confident environmental stewards 
    • They are aware of recycling and waste processes that they can share with others 
    • They feel empowered to do their part in saving the environment 
    • They know practical applications for their consumption and waste management 

What are the Benefits of Teaching Waste Management? 

  • It can be both educational and fun! Projects can be made focusing on lessons about recycling featuring arts and crafts with recycled items, which is something they can take home and share with others.
  • It’s relatable and relevant for students since everyone produces waste of some sort.
  • It’s actionable because everyone can reasonably take steps to reduce the amount of waste they produce.
  • When students see the fruits of their learning in action, it inspires them to learn and act more! 

What are Environmental Education Programs Doing in Waste Management? 

UC Elkus Ranch has two kiosks that display ways to eliminate items that may have to go to the landfill, including a ‘Use this instead of this’ display. This shows items to replace plastics such as straws, plastic baggies, plastic water bottles, etc. [They] do a short talk with the students during their lunch break on recycling, composting, and trash. 

5 Gyres’ Trash Academy virtual lesson series introduces and engages students on the current plastic pollution crisis impacting our health and environment today. Through educational videos, students learn about the lifecycle of plastic, current-day waste management strategies, and the hazardous effects petrochemical products have on human health. The series also dives into the challenges and problems that recycling, landfilling, and incineration have on our environment. These lessons provide students with a basis for environmental toxicology, policy, and upstream solutions in order to bring awareness to the environmental issues plastic causes around the world. In response to being asked “Would you tell your friends to take this class to learn more about Plastic Pollution and why?” one student answered, “I would because people need to know about plastic pollution.”   

The City of Watsonville Green Schools program partners with Pajaro Valley School District schools, students, administration, custodial, and foodservice divisions to make a difference through waste reduction. Thirteen public schools in Watsonville repurpose whole foods for reuse, collect food scraps for industrial composting and recycle. Not only are we meeting state mandates to reduce climate emissions from landfills; students and staff are empowered to help their environment and community. Some model schools have cut waste in half at meal times in the cafeteria; even when 85% of meals are packaged through the free and reduced-cost meal program. Twenty staff from PVUSD from custodians to administrators received awards from the Watsonville Mayor in 2020 for their efforts. 

California Coastal Commission’s Schoolyard Cleanup program can be done as a simple service activity to clean up litter around campus, or it can be an opportunity for a full-fledged project that has students working through many of the Science and Engineering Practices as they use their own expert knowledge about their school community to plan and implement an investigation, analyze and communicate data, and evaluate and carry out solutions. Students of all ages can analyze the waste that’s produced and disposed of at their school, think through ways to reduce waste and litter, and implement their own solutions, which might range from moving a trash can, teaching other students about recycling and composting or even lobbying for less packaging in the lunches the school provides. 

Applicable Lesson Plans 

Applicable programs on the Hub 

Educational Resources 

PBS Grade K-2 Lesson: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle 

In this media-rich lesson featuring LOOP SCOOPS videos, students consider how the concept of “needs” vs. “wants” can help them think about ways to protect Earth’s natural resources by reducing, reusing, and recycling materials. 

LEGO Grades 1-5 Lesson: Sort to Recycle 

Students design a device that sorts objects using their physical properties, including shape and size. 

CELF Grade 2 Project: Composting 

Students are going to start a composting program in the school in partnership with a local community garden. Students will also create a presentation to share with the school to raise awareness on the issues of waste.

Green Education Foundation Pre K-K Lesson: Reduce Your Trash 

Students will learn the need to reduce the amount of trash they generate and describe ways in which they can make changes in their actions to support waste reduction. They will measure and compare the weight of common objects using non-standard units of measure. They collect, record, and interpret data using a variety of graphic representations and analyze collected data to draw logical conclusions. Students will use graphic representations to communicate their ideas and inform their audience about their actions to reduce waste. 

Pre K-2nd  and Homeschool Lesson: Growing Food from Scraps 

Want to introduce young learners to grow their own food from what would normally be considered “waste”? Then this simple science experiment is for you! In this lesson, your students will learn how to regrow a vegetable from a scrap, monitor its vertical growth, and discuss the ecological importance of reducing food waste. In order to make learning more accessible to all learners, both teacher and student versions have been written in both English and Spanish! 

Copyright © Green Guardians Inc.

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