Recycling & Waste Management

Upload Knowledge Introduction

Do you ever wonder where all our garbage goes? Garbage that’s thrown in the trash goes back to the environment from where the original materials came from in the first place. It re-enters the environment through landfills or waste combustors. But, when it goes back to the environment, it is in a less usable form than the original raw materials were, and it takes hundreds of years for many products to turn into raw materials again. The natural resources we use cannot be cycled through the environment at anywhere near the rate at which we currently extract them. Furthermore, the exact way matter and energy cycle through the environment is more complex than this simple way of thinking about it. If you want a deeper understanding of the process, you should read about thermodynamics and the differences between low entropy and high entropy energy. Start by learning the basics of thermodynamics, and then learn about how the laws can be applied to our economy and the way we use natural resources to produce items.

In order to be an effective advocate for recycling, you should start thinking of recycling as a process that can run at varying levels of efficiency. This is because the act of recycling uses energy at every step along the way, and the way you go about it can use a lot of energy or just a little energy. Think about the miles that different recycled materials have to travel to be processed. Those miles are responsible for transportation vehicles using fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases. Also think about the fact that it takes more energy to process certain recyclable materials into new materials than it does others. Therefore, some items are more valuable to the recycling process than others because of how much energy and transportation it takes to process them. The more you can be conscious of these issues, the better you’ll be at explaining the benefits of recycling and answering the concerns of skeptical decision makers.

Recycling is only one step in the process!

Recycling is only one of the three R’s. What the heck are the three R’s? Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Reduce means use less to begin with so that less waste is created in the first place. For example, check out this resource about packing a no waste lunch that parents might find helpful. Also think about the materials your school purchases and the amount of packaging they come in. Are there some liquids that could be ordered in more condensed forms? Are there items that could be ordered less frequently and in bulk so that less packaging is used? Check out the EPA’s tips for how to reduce packing.

Reuse means find ways to reuse items before you even think about recycling them. Do you use both sides of every sheet of paper in the classroom? Could students organize a community event where old clothes are swapped for free? RecycleWorks offers a nice guide on creatively reusing items. And the EPA offers great tips for... The best policy you can have in your school is to make the third R, Recycle, the last resort in the three-step process of reducing waste. But, don’t forget composting as another final option before dumping waste into the trash. We explain some great composting resources in our Take Some Action Section.

“Closing the loop” is the last important part of the recycling equation, but surprisingly enough, it’s also the first part! What? “Closing the loop” means that when you have to buy new products to begin with, buy products that have recycled content in them. That way you are supporting the recycling effort of everyone else who recycles. You are re-using what’s already been used! But, there are tricks to knowing which types of recycled content are better than others. Not all recycling content is equally good for the process. Read Take Some Action to learn more.

Do you ever wonder what recycled materials are made into? Earth911 explains what comes from recycled paper, aluminum cans, steel cans, glass bottles, and plastic #1 bottles.


Want to know the details about what exactly you can and can’t recycle?
Then, click here to take some action!

Help your students upload their knowledge!

Bring recycling into your classroom! There are many small things you can do like the
games and activities that teach kids about recycling offered by the EPA. Students can become Planet Protectors where hands-on exercises teach them the concepts of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Or you can follow AF&PA and Scholastic’s Teaching Recycling Guide for a comprehensive curriculum on recycling that follows National Learning Standards.

Students can also read the Department of Energy’s Fact Sheets on recycling to do their own research.

Challenge students to think about the common materials we use to make items. Inspire them to think about how there are alternatives through this activity of making potato plastic, an alternative to petroleum-based plastic. This is a great project for middle-school or high-school students!


There are more classroom lessons and activities on recycling in our Curriculum Library.

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