‘Lose That Plastic and Save Our Planet’

Sparkly garbage is a hot topic of conversation in Chris Kearns’ first-grade class at Willard Elementary School in Ridgewood. It’s the shiny foil inside many chip bags and juice pouches, and it can all be recycled. Walk through the halls of the school, and you’ll see cartons of sparkly garbage, big bags full of those pesky plastic grocery bags and plastic bottle tops overflowing from cardboard boxes. Go just outside the building, and a compost machine sits ready to be filled with leftovers from healthy snacks. It’s easy to see that the students at Willard have been hard at work doing their part to recycle, reduce and reuse.

“A phrase we throw around here a lot is how to be a good caretaker,” Chris says. “Whether it’s being a caretaker for the earth by recycling and cutting down on plastic use or being a good caretaker for yourself by eating healthy foods and making the right choices, it’s up to you.”

What used to be an after-school recycling club has in the past several years turned into a school-wide initiative at Willard, ensuring that all students have a chance to participate.

“Every child is in the lunchroom at some point during the day,” says Caroline Hoffman, the principal of Willard, which was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012. “And whether they have brought food from home or bought it at school, this is a great opportunity for them to take part in the recycling process through disposing of their food and plastic in the various bins we have down there,” she says. “Anyone else seeing this might be overwhelmed by all of the different containers and what goes where, but the kids know exactly where things go, and we think that’s awesome. They’re learning it in kindergarten; it’s just become part of their day.”

The message of being eco-conscious is conveyed to students in many ways. Several years ago, the school was given a grant from the Bergen County Utilities Authority to put toward recycling bins in every classroom, and that has been very helpful, Chris says.

“It’s great because the exact same bins are in classrooms from kindergarten up to fifth grade, so kids are seeing continuity in their recycling efforts year after year in each class.”

He reports that support from fellow teachers in their own classrooms is amazing, and the school is also using their student-delivered WPN broadcasts to carry the message as well.

For the past eight or so years, Willard has been involved with TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based organization that recycles hard-to-recycle materials (aka sparkly garbage and plastic bottle caps).

“We have an army of people who bring in the caps,” Chris says. “Outside of my classroom right now are four bags that came today. I used to keep track of how many pounds of materials we were collecting but couldn’t keep up a few years ago.”

The items for TerraCycle are boxed, labeled and sent into the company, and the school receives rewards back. Chris reports that Willard has received more than $3,000 for their efforts since they began participating in the program.

They also take part in the Recycling Plastic Challenge from Trex, a manufacturer of wood-alternative composite decking made from recycled material. Students bring in plastic bags from home, which are then collected, weighed and taken to a participating grocery stores’ drop-off location. Chris estimates they’ve collected more than 300 pounds of plastic bags to date. Awards are given to schools that collect the most, a nice motivation for the students, Caroline says.

“We love a contest,” she says. “But after the excitement of seeing just how much they can bring in settles down, the real conversation starts. It brings an awareness of how much plastic we use and about ways to cut down on that use. And that inevitably leads to questions they ask themselves, like: ‘Do I really need three plastic sandwich bags every day?’ or ‘Maybe I’ll use a cloth bag for my lunch tomorrow instead of a brown bag.’ Our kids have to be the teachers to all of us,” she says.

As the weather gets warmer, the compost machines will be put to use by classrooms wanting to contribute. Year-round in Chris’ first-grade class, where they are encouraged to bring in snacks that are good for them, they have their own white bucket which, after snack time, is filled with the remains of fruits, vegetables and other compostable items.

“We talk about who can put their apple core in the bucket or whose orange peels go in,” he says. “If seeing how what’s in the bucket is composted encourages kids to ask their parents for healthy foods to bring in, that’s great,” he says.  

Rooted in the heart of the school, their passion for recycling isn’t going anywhere soon.

“We’re knee-deep in this,” says Chris, laughing as he looks around his classroom. “But what we’re trying to teach them, from this early age, is about making good choices. If something is important to you, then it becomes a powerful choice to take those extra steps to make something happen. That’s what it’s all about.”

And with almost too many bottle caps in the hallway to count, it seems to be working.