Recycling works for EVERY grade

By Jennifer Pieratt

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 267.8 million tons of trash were produced in the US in 2017. 12.5% of the garbage was incinerated, 55% was buried in landfills, and the remaining third was composted or recycled. In comparison, Germany recycles 68% of its waste. Recycling matters because it reduces the need to consume more natural resources, requires less energy than producing new goods, and decreases greenhouse gas emissions because less trash decomposes in landfills. Moreover, recycling is not only relevant but easy to combine with PBL, particularly for K-6 students. But what is project-based learning in an elementary classroom? Its aim being personalized, engaging education, project based learning involves active, inquiry based learning. Recycling lends itself as a great PBL topic in elementary because kids tend to care about problems they can see. To kick start your PBL planning, here are ten cool recycling project ideas to get you started.

  1. Recycling markers

ColorCycle is a program Crayola launched to help teach kids about their role in protecting the environment. The company has pledged to collect all used markers (and not just their own) for free to repurpose the plastic. You can sign your school up today and ask your students the following driving question for an interdisciplinary PBL project: How can you motivate your peers to recycle all of their markers?

Colorcycle Final

  1. School recycling program

Starting a recycling program in your school demands a lot of time and effort. Luckily, you’re not alone, and your class may appreciate the opportunity to learn how to implement green initiatives. Help students scaffold their own recycling project, from finding start-up grants and building support within the school, to determining collection points and color codes. 

  1. Vermicomposting

Worms are slimy, disgusting, and most of all, memorable. There is no better way to make your students remember their recycling experiences in school and turn all of your lunchroom waste into nutritious fertilizer for the school’s plants and trees. This is also a great opportunity to teach your class about insect life cycles, the digestive system, and ecological relationships. 

Worm Composting

  1. Presenting recycling

The changing methods and significance of recycling around the world is a fascinating issue. Encourage your students to dive into this topic and create planning forms and presentations about it for different audiences using online tools such as Slidesgo, Flipgrid, Peardeck, Unsplash and more. Ask them to justify what they changed from one presentation to another depending on the target audience.

  1. Tracking your trash

To find green alternatives to what you consume, you have to know what you throw out. Ask your students to start recording what they throw out in a daily diary entry. Have them fill out this thought-provoking quiz by the Washington Post and then guide them as they design their own in their chosen format. 

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  1. Completing NGSS standards

Studying recycling directly allows you to complete the following NGSS standards: ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems, ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem, and ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions. What is project-based learning in an elementary classroom? It’s when students start building links between people’s choices and their trash production, investigate the problems created when they don’t recycle, and explore what solutions exist to counter through their own learning choices. 

  1. Writing to convince

Persuasive writing may appear intimidating to elementary school students, if not downright terrifying. Have them first play a “Philosophical Chairs” debate to break the ice. Every time the music stops, the two sitting in the designated chairs must answer a controversial question and justify their position in a short debate. Then, once the Need to Know writing techniques are covered, your class can learn to apply them by answering this driving question: “How can we convince the leaders of our community of the importance of recycling?” Persuasive writing can be taught regardless of a student’s young age, as seen below.

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  1. Visual representations

Teaching your students how to interpret and create visual representations of information matters in almost every class. Introduce recycling to your students and make them analyze what makes information beautiful. Each learner can then create an infographic on a sub-topic of their choice using free online tools such as Glogster, Canva and Piktochart.

  1. Public service announcements (PSAs)

PSAs are messages which aim to raise awareness about an issue and change public attitudes towards it through short 30-second videos. What is project-based learning in an elementary classroom? Well, it can be your students having fun exploring a topic of their own through research, writing a storyboard, then filming and editing their PSA using iMovie or Animoto. The PSAs can be very simple! Just make sure to encourage in-depth reflection every step of the way.

  1. Junk art

Documentaries like Waste Land, in which Vik Muniz makes garbage pickers in Rio de Janeiro pose as models, use art to incentivize people to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Make a deal with your class to collect interesting pieces of trash, then ask them to create their own art piece about recycling using these and justifying each of their artistic choices.

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So, what is project-based learning in an elementary classroom, and how is it related to recycling? As A.J. Juliani states: “Yes, it surrounds a topic, but the kids’ choices of what to do with the information are endless. The learning is endless.”  At Holy Family School, for instance, students upcycled, using plastic water bottles and toilet paper rolls to create beautiful Christmas ornaments. Initiatives like these make us realize that we spend very little time thinking about our waste chain. After all, even recycling has its costs, as many overwhelmed American recycling companies export trash to developing countries or return what they can’t handle to landfills. We need to question what we do with our garbage, and most importantly, we need to teach our students to do so. 

Take a look at the resources below to help you implement project-based learning in your elementary classroom.

Background information about recycling:

Impact of recycling:

Online game about what is recyclable:

What happens when we recycle:

The basics:

For LEED buildings:


Which is better, recycling or reusing?

Videos (for kids):

Why is Recycling Important?

The 3 Rs:

How is trash recycled?

A tale of two soup cans:

Environmental conservation and the 3 Rs:


Creative Recycling Projects from Common Household Items:

Classroom Activities Using Recycled Materials:

Easy activities for kids to reduce, reuse and recycle:

Upcycling ideas for the classroom :

Crayola Marker Recycling:


Miranda Paul. One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Woman of the Gambia ISBN: 1467716081

Pam Scheunemann. Trash to Treasure: A Kid’s Guide to Crafts ISBN: 193806318X

Garth Johnson. 1000 Ideas for Creative Reuse: Remake, Restyle, Recycle, Renew ISBN: 1592535402

Upcycling product ideas: Hipcycle: 33 boards for #upcycling

Consumer information about the 3 Rs: Environmental Protection Agency

Upcycling preparations for the classroom:

Experiments, free games, random facts, interesting videos, quizzes and more about recycling:

Sample infographics:

Waste segregation:

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions: