THE CHALLENGE: Pam Galus was always looking for ways to teach her science students about cause and effect, and about environmental impact on living things. She used something as simple as a roll of toilet paper as an example. Trees are cut down, transported to a processing plant where they’re turned into pulp and then paper. Discussions like that led her students to ask the inevitable question: “why don’t we recycle here?” The short answer was that the school district didn’t allow recycling in classrooms for various reasons. Ms. Galus and her students weren’t satisfied with that answer and decided to affect positive change.
THE SOLUTION: Ms. Galus takes pride in teaching her students that they have to follow the rules, but when they see something wrong they should stand up and say something. When her students learned the school district didn’t allow recycling, they began a campaign to convince Omaha Public Schools to allow recycling at Lothrop. Their persistence paid off and soon they gained approval to start collecting and recycling used paper as long as it was out of the building at the end of the day. Ms. Galus, along with a few environmentally-conscious teachers and students began collecting paper from each classroom and taking it home to put in their personal city recycle bins. From there the effort grew and grew, and now the fourth grade students at Lothrop Magnet Center are running a comprehensive school-wide recycling program that is making an impact on the hearts and minds of all students as well as the environment.
THE RESULTS: At the start of each school year, Ms. Galus establishes a Green Leadership team made up of fourth grade science students. The Green Team is responsible for making necessary changes to the program and keeping it running throughout the school year. They are then tasked with training third graders to take over the program the following year. Ms. Galus admits that she and school administrators worried that their young pupils (ranging in age from four to 10) wouldn’t be able to make the program work, but they were all pleasantly surprised when the students were on board and enthusiastically participating in just a couple days.
What started with just paper has expanded to everything from milk bottles and juice boxes, to eyeglasses and batteries. At breakfast and lunch, a recycling line manned by students ensures that everything that can be recycled is sorted into separate containers. The Green Teams even identified solutions that save resources. By having students stack disposable cardboard trays instead of simply throwing them into a trash can the school can use less trash bags, saving money and reducing waste.
Composting has also served as a valuable science lesson as students learned what can and can’t be composted (fruits and vegetables are okay, meat and animal byproducts are not), how the waste breaks down, and what the compost material can be used for. Ms. Galus encourages the students to not just accept no for an answer, but to look for solutions. When they learned milk bottle caps couldn’t be recycled along with the bottles, they wanted to understand why. By contacting their local recycling plant the students learned that when the bottle caps were thrown in the same bin as the bottles, their light weight made most of them fall off the conveyer belt. But if the bottle caps were packaged separately they could be recycled on their own.
Their mentor believes that if kids are taught healthy habits at a young age, they’ll maintain them all their lives. Lothrop’s green initiative has even trickled out of the school and into the community. The children have taken home their understanding of recycling, encouraging their families to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. Even when on school field trips, such as a recent trip to a museum, the students retain their passion for recycling. When they noticed the museum didn’t recycle, they wrote letters to the director, encouraging the cultural institution to consider creating a recycling program for patrons and staff.
- Start Small & Grow: To create a successful recycling program, Ms. Galus recommends starting small and building up, empowering students by allowing them to manage the program. At Lothrop, students are responsible for collecting the paper in all the recycling bins on campus. They’re given just 15 minutes to do the job and they quickly learn that they don’t have time to wave at friends or disrupt the classrooms in any way.
- Consider Partnerships & Donating: The Lothrop Green Team believes that even better than recycling something is using it for something else before it’s recycled. Partnering with Omaha’s Lauritzen Gardens, students are able to use emptied juice boxes as planters for a special sunflower project that will be featured at the botanical garden. They also believe in ensuring nothing goes to waste. At the end of each meal period, unopened packages of plastic utensils are collected for donation to a local homeless shelter.
- Encourage Out Of The Box Thinking: The students have created games using things like milk bottle caps and emptied juice boxes. Their science fair projects focus on environmental issues, and they have used distance learning to discuss environmental issues via teleconference with schools in Canada.
- For more information about how and where to recycle almost anything, visit http://earth911.com/.
- To learn about the “Drink It & Sink It” milk bottle recycling effort in place at Lothrop, visit http://www.nutritionexplorations.org/sfs/schoolmilk_recycling.asp.
- To learn more about school recycling programs, visit http://www.aseptic.org/resources/schools.pdf.