Editor's Note: This story appears in in Waste & Recycling News' commemorative issue, "40 Years of Curbside Recycling."
As more and more K-12 schools adopt comprehensive recycling programs, kids across the country are becoming increasingly inspired to do their part in protecting the environment.
"A young child naturally has an open heart to things like animals and nature, it's just natural," said Tamar Hurwitz, environmental education manager at the San Francisco Department of the Environment. "When they understand that the choices they make to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost can actually help protect these natural areas that kids care about, they're motivated to share their information with parents and friends, and they're motivated to take the actions to help."
In many ways, because of their inherent enthusiasm for protecting nature, children are leading their communities toward more sustainable practices — especially in cities where recycling services are not offered.
Take 10-year-old Vanis Buckholz from Corona Del Mar, Calif.
Growing up in a city without curbside recycling services, his parents never even considered recycling at home.
"It's not that my wife or I had any aversion to recycling," said Dave Buckholz, Vanis' father. "It just never really crossed our minds."
That is until Vanis, at age 7, brought home a school assignment for an Earth Day lesson on recycling.
"Our homework was to think of something we could do ourselves to help." Vanis said. "My family did not recycle, and I didn't know anything about how to do it, but it seemed like something a kid could do."
Not only did the Buckholz household start recycling as a result of the assignment, but Vanis has since started a full-fledged recycling business for his community.
On a small trailer hitched to his bike, Vanis collects a truckload of recyclables every two weeks from local businesses and neighbors. He offers the service to his customers free of charge, and 25% of the money he earns from the commodities goes to local charities.
While most kids probably aren't going out and starting businesses because they learned about recycling in school, it's very likely that many of them are sharing what they've learned with their parents and siblings.
"What begins as an act of recycling in the schools for students oftentimes carries over to the home and results in the entire family adopting recycling practices." said Barbara Heineken, East Coast schools coordinator for the Carton Council of North America. "And as a long-term benefit, kids who are exposed to recycling early on are more likely to continue recycling throughout their entire lives."
Though it's not something that can be easily quantified into a tangible statistic, most educators and recycling coordinators understand that a really great school program can make a kid eager to talk about recycling with their friends and family. But not all recycling education programs are the same, and some can be much more effective in encouraging discussions than others.
Especially among the younger students, it's important to send a positive message that will excite and motivate them to recycle, rather than simply scaring them into participating, Hurwitz said.
"We don't want to give them scary statistics and make them feel afraid for their future," she said. "We want to be honest but also say, 'Hey there's hope, there's good news, you have the power to make a difference,' so that they feel enthused and motivated to take action."
For years, Kelley Dennings, senior director of recycling programs for Keep America Beautiful, has been searching for ways to quantify the amount of kids who take what they learn in school about recycling home with them.
"That's like the holy grail," she said. "We don't know how many schools are actually recycling in the country, so we don't really have a good baseline."
Based on survey responses from the 1,500 schools that participated in Keep America Beautiful's K-12 Recycle-Bowl competition last year, almost 30% said they felt there was an increased awareness about recycling in the community around their school.
While the survey only represents a small sample of K-12 schools, it illustrates the potential these programs have to reach people beyond the students involved.
Whether or not we can prove that recycling education in schools positively affects communities, there's no question that teaching kids — not only how to recycle, but why to recycle — is beneficial to society.
"You know if you're talking to an 8-year-old child and you're talking about the animals that they love and where those animals live, if you explain that natural resources come from natural areas where animals live, suddenly you've got their attention," Hurwitz said. "So we tell a bigger story about that so that they understand that your actions really do matter. It's not just because we don't want waste in the landfill, it's because we don't want to have to go back to nature, take more natural resources out that impact the habitats of the animals they care about."