Recycling with Kids


When children participate in recycling, the whole family becomes more involved. Find tips on recycling everything from food waste and containers to soap, old clothes, and cell phones.

In the past, the back room at the Winthrop Country Day Learning Center in Winthrop, Massachusetts has been a bakery, a Native American reservation, a veterinarian’s office, and the Country Day Café. Currently, thanks to the prompting of five-year-old student Robert DiBattista, it is a recycling center.

“I asked the kids what they thought the back room should be next,” explains Director Richelle Tacelli-Flavin. “Without hesitating, Robert suggested we make a recycling center.”

Flavin frequently uses recycled materials in art projects and thought that Robert’s idea was perfect. “We had lots of recycled items in the basement. Now we put everything in bins in here. The children come in and pick out things they pretend to pay for at our cash register. Then they go to the art room where they create all kinds of wonderful crafts. We probably would not have considered this idea if Robert had not suggested it.”

“Robert has a fascination with recycling,” says his mom, Andrea. “I can’t throw anything in the trash until he checks to make sure we can’t recycle it.” Like many towns, Winthrop has a curbside recycling program for paper, cans, plastic and glass. Andrea says, “Robert’s interest comes from watching the truck come down the street every week and from what he sees me do.”

Daily Recycling

With published reports indicating the United States as the top producer of waste at 4.41 pounds per person per day, parents are wise to encourage their children to recycle. Parent coach Deborah Phillips, M.S., creator of Coach-Parenting™ recommends using daily opportunities to encourage children to recycle: “Rather than finding time to sit down with your child to have a discussion about recycling, work your thoughts and ideas into your everyday words and actions.”

Phillips advises parents to explain to children why they are placing items in the recycling bin as they do so. And on trips to the supermarket, if you are choosing food packaged in earth-friendly containers,”tell your child we’re going to buy this food because it is easier to recycle the box,” Phillips suggests.

The Home Tour

Curbside recycling offers a convenient introduction to responsible waste management, but there are resources in virtually every room of the home which can be reused.

  • Kitchen: Few children eat every morsel of food served to them. Many leftovers can be used for composting. Compost, which enriches soil, is a mixture of both yard debris such as dry leaves and grass clippings and kitchen scraps. Compost should not include bones, meat, or grease. But cooking oil can be reused, and some bones should be saved to make soup stock. The water used to cook vegetables provides nutrients for houseplants. And the crust you have cut off your child’s sandwiches can be used to feed ducks and birds on a walk to the pond. 

  • Bathroom: The Taing family in Long Beach, California, diverts used bath water into the garden via a hose. In drought-stricken areas where water bans are in effect, this is a prudent use of a limited resource. Some families choose not to flush the toilet after every use. A watchword from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority is, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down!”

    Those tiny slivers of soap that are too small for practical use can be collected, melted, and shaped into new bars. (The same process works for broken crayons.)

  • Bedroom: Disposable items in a child’s bedroom include clothes and toys. Only wash clothes when they are really dirty; not only does this conserve water, but it cuts down on wear and tear. 

    When clothes have been outgrown, they can be passed down to younger relatives or neighbors, or donated to a family shelter. If pants and shirts are completely unwearable, they can be recycled into other items. Cut favorites into fabric swatches for a memory quilt. Stuff t-shirts with batting, baste the edges and make throw pillows or bean bags for games. Gifted sewers can make dolls clothes, too.

    Old toys in working condition can be sold or donated to charity. They can also be the games and prizes for a backyard or neighborhood carnival. Broken toys which are dangerous should be discarded, but games or puzzles with missing pieces can be recycled. Create new games using the old materials. As a Sunday School activity at Park Street Church in Boston, teachers asked children to glue random jigsaw puzzle pieces together, paint them with glitter, and attach a pin. These were given as Mother’s Day gifts to some very grateful moms.

  • Living Room: Perhaps the most conservable resource in the living room is electricity. Remind children to turn off lights, computers, televisions and CD players when they leave the room. Make them aware of just how much electric power costs by reviewing your monthly bill with them. As they conserve, they will notice the total going down each month. Perhaps the savings can be used for a special family treat.

We Can’t Recycle Everything

Beth Bailey of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation says that not everything is recyclable. “Televisions, computers, and cell phones cannot be recycled,” she explains. “However, various parts from the computers and TV’s can be removed and reused, and cell phones are often donated to programs which prevent domestic violence.”

For additional information on how to dispose of these items, contact your local health or sanitation department.

Most households do recycle, and when children participate, the whole family becomes more active. Girl Scout leader, teacher, and mother of four Janet Rathbone of Portland, Oregon, stresses recycling both at home and with her Brownie and Girl Scout troops. “If the kids are the ones recycling – sorting cans and bottles – they grasp the concept better,” says Rathbone. “Recycling with children is developing a habit that hopefully others will follow.”


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