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Is Teaching Children to Recycle a Waste of Time?

It's easy to throw a plastic bottle into a recycling bin and feel good. But eventually, that bottle will make its way to a landfill.
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Remember those "green" school assemblies when you were a kid? Actors, usually hired from a waste management company, sang catchy songs about "reduce, reuse and recycle." They taught us to look for the recycle symbol and encouraged us to place those items in a special colored bin.

Walk into any school now and you will see recycling bins for paper and plastic proudly displayed. What about reducing and reusing?

Recycling is supposed to be a quick fix. It makes us feel good. But the benefits are minimal. In 2011, the EPA reported that 32 million tons of plastic waste was generated in the United States. Only 8% of plastic was recovered for recycling, leaving the other 92% contributing to landfills or the Pacific Plastic Vortex also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic in landfills and oceans is dangerous. It is not biodegradable and leaches toxic chemicals. Plastic will break down into millions of smaller particles called photo degradation, but never fully decomposes. As it breaks down, chemicals such as BPA and PCBs are released. In the oceans, sea animals mistake these tiny pieces for food and ingest them, passing toxic chemicals through the food chain and ultimately, to our plates.

Plastic is everywhere! Wake up and you probably touch the alarm clock made of plastic. Stumble out of bed and step onto your carpet (made from plastic fibers). Open the bathroom door (most likely made of vinyl -- a.k.a. plastic) and reach for your plastic toothbrush. Twist the cap off the toothpaste held in plastic and gargle with mouthwash enclosed in plastic. In the kitchen, turn on the coffee pot constructed from plastic and pour in the coffee grinds (bag of plastic or plastic lid on the canister). Open the refrigerator (plastic here too) to grab your plastic encased coffee cream and a quick breakfast: Greek yogurt topped with granola lined in a plastic bag. Five minutes into the morning and you have encountered a dozen plastic items.

At the end of its life, these products are swiftly discarded and sent to a landfill or a recycling center. You may think placing them in a recycling bin avoids the landfill route. Not true. The majority of plastic in curbside bins is not recycled. Most assume that if there is a recycle symbol on a product it will be recycled. Wrong. It means it has the potential to be recycled, not that it will be recycled. The numbers inside the symbol are a coding system to help sort and differentiate the various types of plastic. Plastics have different resins and melting points and the numbers help classify the type of plastic. Plastic bags are a great example. If placed in your curbside bin they probably will not be recycled because they jam up machinery. These bags must be processed separately and should be taken to grocery stores which have set up collections to send these to facilities that can properly recycle.

The second problem is that most plastics can only be down-cycled into a lesser grade plastic. To truly recycle we would have to convert the product into a new similar product. Unlike an aluminum can, plastic bottles are not recycled back to a new bottle. They are made into fibers for carpet, clothing, tables and park equipment. These products unfortunately cannot be down-cycled again and will eventually wind up in a landfill or worse yet, in the ocean.

We need to tell our children the truth. Talk about how plastic breaks down into tiny pieces but never fully disappears. The best way to demonstrate this is to conduct your own experiment. Place water in a glass jar and add various small items: a cracker, paper towel, plastic lid, piece of Ziploc bag, small toy, etc. Cover the jar and place in a spot to observe. Older children can record their observations on a weekly and monthly basis.

Explain that most items we put in a recycling bin will not be recycled. Contact your local waste management agency to see what it recycles. Find out where to bring items like plastic bags and batteries that are not accepted through curbside collection (a great research project for older children). Kids are visual so make a chart showing pictures of what we can and cannot recycle. Even showing them a picture of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can have a profound impact.

Most importantly, we must emphasize reducing consumption. Buy toys with less packaging. Get your child's opinion on which one would be better for the earth. Purchase loose apples rather than ones pre-packaged in a bag. Decline plastic utensils when bringing food home to eat. Use these shopping trips as educational opportunities. As the Arapaho American Indian proverb states, "Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it."

It's easy to throw a plastic bottle into a recycling bin and feel good. But eventually, that bottle will make its way to a landfill. Instead, take the time to refill a reusable water bottle.Ask your children what they can reuse. In our household, old peanut butter jars become aquariums and fairy gardens. Yogurt containers hold crayons, barrettes and Legos. Plastic zipper bags make great puzzle piece holders. Resourceful ideas are sure to fill their brains.

Plastic is here to stay. Recycling will continue to be part of the solution, but with only 8% effectiveness, it's hardly a cure. With a little effort and awareness we can show our children another way. Eager to learn they will understand that reusing and reducing are essential to the planet's health.

Dawn Wynne is a best-selling and award-winning author, public speaker, health coach and environmental activist based in Palos Verdes Estates. Her latest book is Earth Remembers When ... an environmental book for children which can be found at