Education is good at any age, but teaching kids is a particularly effective way to boost recycling rates. Kids aren’t as set in their ways, will be recyclers for a long time and are actually quite likely to push skeptical parents to keep things out of the trash. That’s the reasoning behind BRING Recycling’s student education program, managed by Brett Jacobs. A former high school science teacher, Jacobs now spends his days teaching kids about worms, trash and the Three Rs. “Kids are the future recyclers,” Jacobs says. “If they can learn it now and have it be a normal part of life, they will recycle more and recycle better.” BRING Recycling, a nonprofit based in Eugene, OR, started in 1971 as a place where people could recycle their glass. Eventually, BRING began collecting other items such as plastics, metals and e-waste. When people started bringing glass windows and stainless steel sinks, BRING didn’t say no, and soon the organization became a major collection point for building and fabrication materials. While selling secondhand products remains a primary focus for BRING, education is also a huge part of its mission. That’s where Jacobs comes in. In his role as Education Director, he’s required to interact with at least 11,000 adults every year, so he spends a fair amount of time at community events or leading tours for businesses, neighborhood groups, books clubs or anyone else interested in learning more about reuse, recycling and what happens to the stuff in the trashcan. He’s also mandated to talk one on one with at least 5,000 kids annually. He partners with dozens of schools, Head Start classrooms, summer camps, youth groups and other organizations. Jacobs is trained to provide a variety of different activities depending on what the group leader requests. He might go into a classroom and spend a couple hours as an art instructor, showing kids how to make paper or build mandalas from 6,000 colorful milk jug lids. He can put on his “worm guy” hat and teach kids how the critters turn their garbage into compost. He might even act as a guide for an eye-opening tour around a landfill. “I like to take kids on a journey,” he says. “I like to end on a high point, but I don’t mind bringing them down a little” to drive home why recycling is so vitally important. Jacobs also leads tours of the county’s recycling and waste transfer site. He was kind enough to take 1-800-RECYCLING.com on a brief excursion recently for a glimpse of what the kids see when they visit. We walked through a recycling area, where kids learn what happens to everything from glass bottles, to rusty bicycles, to tree trimmings. We also took a look at “the pit,” which contains materials destined for the landfill. The kids are often shocked to see what ends up there, Jacobs says. “Once I was with the kids and someone dropped a whole piano in
. Another time someone brought in a perfectly good dresser. All the kids were yelling at him, ‘No! No!’”
On his excursions Jacobs throws in plenty of lessons about why reducing and reusing “waste” is actually more important than recycling. At one point during our tour, Jacobs points to a concrete birdbath in a recycling bay.
“See that?” he asks. “When it came in, it was in perfect condition. I can guarantee you sometime this week, someone is going to go to a garden store and buy a birdbath just like it. And someone just paid money to throw one away. Kids can see that. They get that it’s a waste.”
At the end of the day, reducing waste is Jacobs’ mission. No matter what the activity, all the kids get a copy of BRING’s newsletter, which contains a comprehensive list of recycling locations in the area. That information helps kids transform what they learned into action.
“If children can understand the value of waste, as they become the grown-up driving their car to the dump they’ll spend more time recycling than at the pit,” Jacobs says.
Influencing the Next Generation of Recyclers
One Oregon-based nonprofit is instilling recycling habits onto its youthful followers.