Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Environmental Education in the Montessori Classroom (From Montessori Life Summer 2023)
Respect for the environment and conscientious care for the world around us are fundamental elements of Montessori philosophy. In learning how to leave the things they use “ready for the next person” instead of merely how they found them, children incorporate the practice of environmental stewardship and sustainability into their daily lives. Montessori believed that as children learned about ecology and the life systems of the world, they would observe the natural systems that “carry out an enormous work serving the harmonious upkeep of the earth. [Each part] has a purpose, a special aim to fulfill and the result of these tasks is our beautiful world” (2009, p. 52). Both within and beyond the classroom, Montessori’s philosophy aligns broadly with practices of environmental education as it leads toward sustainable living, and internalizes an ethos of mindfulness that underpins children’s future activities and intentions.
In this article, I will focus on one aspect of environmental stewardship and sustainability: embracing solid waste reduction by reducing material consumption and by reusing and recycling used materials. These activities can make the abstract concepts of reducing, reusing, and recycling more concrete for young children, as they turn waste products back into attractive, meaningful objects and learn to see solid waste as a resource for creative reuse.
The ultimate goal of environmental education work is to develop good habits both in and beyond the classroom, so that as children grow, they do not think of themselves as making a special effort or taking an extra step beyond their normal activities to be “green.” Instead, the discipline of sustainable practice is integrated deeply into their sense of care for the physical environment as a life practice.
This article was featured in our 2023 Summer edition of Montessori Life magazine. Read the full issue online (AMS members only).
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DIFFERENT LEVELS OF WASTE AVOIDANCE
Since the 1970s, the “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” mantra has been a part of American culture. While recycling might be the best practice that most people think of when it comes to minimizing their environmental footprint, in fact, the greater overall impact comes from reusing materials and from reducing our materials usage by avoiding unnecessary consumption. If you choose not to use something, it saves all of the energy and resources necessary to make, use, and dispose of it. Next best is to reuse items that have already been manufactured, defraying the need to remanufacture or dispose of those items. Finally, recycling is the least efficient of the three and is the only one of the Rs to deal with waste disposal (while reducing and reusing can be thought of as waste avoidance).
Finding ways to recycle or repurpose our waste products after they have been generated is important, but we can have a much larger impact if we look back up the material stream and find ways to minimize our consumption of things in the first place. Our goal in teaching responsible material use to children should be to push our actions as consumers as far upstream as possible in the production process and stay as far as possible from the garbage end of products’ life cycles.
Several important issues present themselves immediately when considering how to approach environmental education and material use with young children:
- Adult discussions of recycling and material use often convey information through statistics, percentages, or complex trends that change over time. Our understanding of these issues relies heavily on our ability to measure and quantify in these very abstract ways—skills not accessible to young children. In order to be impactful, the ideas that work best must be concrete and tied to observable situations within the classroom.
- For young children who are just learning about the idea of measurement, environmental education should revolve around establishing a sensorial impression of the work processes associated with recycling, repurposing, and reusing materials. Reliance on words and numbers will only be meaningful to a minority of children.
- The idea of resources saved by not having to produce something is a more abstract concept than the fairly concrete idea of reusing or recycling things that would otherwise go in the garbage. It is possible to watch the whole recycling process from raw material back to raw material, but the process of source reduction moves from using material to not using it anymore. Understanding the value of this concept requires internalizing the importance of limited resources, which is difficult in environments where resources are automatically replenished and waste is automatically removed. This concept is hard for adults to grasp as well!
WASTE AVOIDANCE: REUSE AND REDUCTION
Developing a culture of material reuse and source reduction is a very different process than incorporating recycling and waste reclamation. Waste avoidance starts with increasing awareness of one’s own waste stream, and then moves to systematically seeking out ways to eliminate the things that end up in the garbage. Counterintuitively, the best recycling bin is an empty one because no waste was produced to fill it!
What is garbage? Anything can become garbage when its owner no longer wants it, even if there is nothing wrong with it. In the same way, anything in the garbage can be given new life if it can be connected with someone who will use it. The best approach to begin to understand what is in our garbage is to examine it in the most scientific way available to us. Sorting and exploring classroom garbage can be a fascinating sensorial experience for Early Childhood students, and older children can use their mathematical skills to represent their findings by measuring, weighing, and graphing the results.
To do a classroom garbage audit, collect all of the garbage that is produced in the whole classroom for one entire day (or, for a larger-scale picture, collect the waste from the whole school building or campus). As a class activity, spread a tarp on the floor, and dump all the garbage in the middle. Because garbage may be wet or messy, anyone handling it should wear gloves. Sort the garbage into different types of materials (e.g., food waste, disposable paper, etc.), and determine which material occurs the most. (Elementary-age children may extend this activity by weighing the piles for comparison.) Examine each kind of waste with your students. What behavior generated the waste, and how could that behavior be changed to avoid producing it (reduce)? What further uses could the material be put to after it has been generated (reuse)? Garbage reduction strategies in the classroom can be very organic, driven by student observations and ideas.
Here are some things I’ve noticed in my experiences auditing garbage with children:
- Everything in the garbage may be disposable, and children notice this. They especially take note of the pile of plastic food wrappers. Thinking about how many of these a school may produce in a year is an impressive figure. We came up with a ballpark estimate that the Primary division of our school might produce 8,000 food wrappers a year based on the pile in the picture (right).
- Despite having a paper recycling bin in the classroom, there will probably be a large pile of office paper in the trash.
- Organic waste from food scraps and peels opens up fascinating conversations about life cycles, and children can be really motivated to collect compost.
Performing a garbage audit activity is also essential to drive home a couple of key ideas about garbage:
- Garbage is not untouchable. There can be a major stigma against coming into contact with garbage that can prevent people from recovering otherwise good items. However, with children, there can also be a gross-out factor to this activity that can be enthralling.
- Garbage we place in a trash can continues to exist. With the magic of the trash can, garbage can feel “invisible”—once you throw it away, it’s out of sight and disappears. Bringing it back out helps everyone collectively understand what the community is throwing away and realize that the things that were supposed to “go away” are still there.
A garbage audit is only the beginning of a conversation about waste that draws attention to the volume and types of things that are being thrown away. Ideally, teachers and students can work toward engaging in a thought process whenever something used in the classroom is about to be discarded. What can we make out of our potential garbage? How can the process of repurposing waste enrich the lives of our children? How can Practical Life be enriched by the obviously meaningful activity of making something fresh from waste materials or from taking care of durable materials?
As a great practical example of waste reduction, several years ago our school switched from using disposable cups to using personal ceramic cups for the children most of the time. The waste reduction itself has avoided an impressive amount of garbage (which the children calculated using Golden Beads): 32 children in the classroom x at least 2 cups per day x 185 days per school year = a minimum of 11,840 disposable cups saved per classroom per year. Using reusable cups also provided a great impetus for daily practical dishwashing and gave the children the opportunity to be mindful with fragile materials and to notice attributes of different cups that they particularly like. In our classroom, the children who wash the cups also get to decide who gets which cup the next day, which creates opportunities for fascinating daily social negotiation!
Similar strategies can be implemented for other “wet” paper goods that cannot be recycled, such as using cloth napkins instead of paper ones. Both of these avoid the need for recycling and create systems of reuse instead. Examples like this in which a single-use, disposable product is replaced by a reusable alternative will have the greatest impact on your classroom’s volume of garbage, and a waste stream without single-use disposable products looks radically different than the typical garbage can.
Creative reuse is an engineering challenge that invites children to imagine possibilities beyond the original design. Waste or worn-out pieces from one process can be repurposed into something unrelated, such as saving puzzles with missing pieces to use for art projects, cutting up worn-out cloth napkins to practice sewing, or letting children take apart broken machines to practice using hand tools. Disposable items such as plastic bottles can be reused in many ways, from creating tiny greenhouse terrariums to making bottle rockets. As an example on a larger scale, the Liter of Light program has repurposed hundreds of thousands of soda bottles as free skylights to bring light to windowless rooms.
If your garbage analysis contains significant food waste or fruit cores and peels, a compost pile is a lovely way to recapture this waste and visibly convert it back into growing things. A compost pile can be as simple as a designated place to deposit organic waste on the school grounds (which includes shredded paper towels) and then covering it up with dirt. Children are very attracted by the gross motor activity of turning the compost! It can also be fascinating to observe what happens when nonbiodegradable materials accidentally make their way into the compost. Elementary-age children can even extend this into a classroom experiment by building an artificial landfill at the beginning of the year and then dissecting it months later to observe what has decomposed and what has not.
Hands-on recycling activities give children the opportunity not only to see how they can make things themselves but also to physically see how their waste materials can be remanufactured into new items instead of becoming garbage. In the process of doing this, waste stops being something that is merely untouchable and disgusting and becomes a free material resource to be mined.
While you may already have a recycling bin in your space for paper or other recyclables, you can extend this by offering a bin whose contents the children can access for their use—for scrap paper, art projects, etc. This can be presented initially in circle time or in a class meeting before installing it in the room. Discussions of classroom layout can also be included: “Where do people produce the most paper waste in this room?” Children should be on the lookout for paper that goes into the trash can by mistake and should feel free to either correct it or to remind the person who put it there to recycle it. Introducing a “scrap paper” bin for partially used paper that may be intentionally repurposed for future work can introduce reuse possibilities beyond just recycling the paper and can divert paper from the recycling bin directly back into children’s hands.
An important part of children’s fascination with recycling lies in getting to see objects they are familiar with rendered down to their composite materials and then rebuilt. Sometimes a waste material contains the perfect raw materials to be recycled back into its original form (e.g., old crayon stubs melted back into new crayons). Just as often, a waste material is recycled into a different product (e.g., old crayon stubs turned into candles). Both of these recycling techniques develop engineering/design skills and vision, and an understanding of the material properties.
TYPES OF RECYCLING
Materials can be reclaimed in many ways—as such, there are several different “flavors” of recycling: closed loop, upcycling, and downcycling. The distinctions between these may not be that important practically, but parsing it out gives us multiple vantage points to think about different kinds of possibilities for material reclamation. All of these are valuable and eliminate the need to use new materials.
- Closed loop recycling refers to activities that can remanufacture a waste product back into its original form. This is what most people think of generically as “recycling.” Closed loop recycling usually obliterates the form of the waste product and rebuilds a new version of it from a raw material state, like melting down old bottles to make new ones.
- Upcycling generally refers to recycling activities where a waste product is transformed into a durable new and different product (e.g., using reclaimed wood to make furniture).
- Downcycling refers to processes where a waste product is transformed into a new disposable product lower in quality or purity, such as making toilet paper by recycling office paper. Downcycled products are very important in reducing the need to make low-quality products out of virgin materials.
Papermaking (closed loop)
The process of making paper in the classroom is fascinating and fun, and can reprocess virtually any kind of scrap paper back into beautiful handmade paper using a blender and an iron. Literally a hot mess, papermaking allows children to see how much time, energy, and water are required just to make a few sheets of paper. This leads easily back to the much more fundamental idea of source reduction as being better than recycling. Because it takes so much work to make it, paper becomes something that is valued more highly.
Crayon Melting (closed loop)
Crayon stubs can easily be melted down to create new, swirly colored crayons. The qualitative difference between this and an activity such as papermaking is that crayons are physically used up by drawing, until the only part that is recycled is the unusable stub. With paper, the whole material is recaptured by the recycling process, since writing on paper does not use up the material itself.
Crayon Candlemaking (upcycling)
Instead of just transforming crayon stubs into new crayons, children can use the same material for candlemaking. This utilizes a different property of the material, combining it with another raw material (a wick) to make something completely new.
Art Projects (upcycling)
Children’s wonderful imaginations can find a creative reuse for virtually any waste product—recyclable or otherwise—as art or tinkering/engineering. Because art-making can take so many forms, it can encompass the whole range of material reclamation, including general reuse of materials as sculpture, collage, mixed-media work, costumes, etc. None of this work has to be topical to recycling per se (e.g., a class “recycled art” project), but rather teachers can give explicit permission to repurpose and deconstruct any materials that might otherwise be thrown away or recycled. A bin of interesting scrap materials from the garbage will be automatically harvested as loose parts for art and engineering projects!
Newspaper Planters (downcycling)
Waste newspaper can be used to make plantable starter pots for seedlings.
LIMITATIONS OF RECYCLING
The activity that most consumers normally think of as “recycling” would be better thought of as “waste segregation”: sorting trash out for different kinds of processing by waste handlers. The actual recycling or disposal usually happens out of our sight, out of our control, and in ways that are not clearly understood by most people on the consumer end of the process. To a child, this abstraction and remoteness is a barrier, because trash is essentially divided between arbitrarily “good” and “bad” cans that have no inherent difference in form or function. A class field trip to either a landfill or a city recycling center can impress upon the children the scope of solid waste generation and the importance of choosing recycling over the landfill.
All forms of recycling share the idea that waste materials are a resource to be utilized. Because of this, recycling in itself does not encourage reductions in usage. In fact, children may be eager to make extra trash so that they can recycle it if recycling is the only way sustainability is presented. In this way, recycling behaviors look and feel very different than reduction and reuse behaviors.
CHANGING THE CULTURE AROUND WASTE
Like dieting, waste reduction is only really sustainable if it is presented as an attainable goal and made into a permanent lifestyle change. Otherwise, it is easy to feel that one’s efforts are never enough or to fall back into old habits after some initial enthusiasm. Changes are most successful when they are not framed in terms of “giving up” unhealthy choices but in terms of replacing less desirable choices with more desirable alternatives. A series of moderate lifestyle changes can be more successful than a big, sweeping prohibition, because the thing that is really changing is the culture.
The ultimate target of waste reduction efforts might be a “zero waste” status, where no solid waste is landfilled. In zero waste, there is essentially no trash can. This is a fairly radical goal when thought of as a change in the cultural mindset around garbage and can be a high bar to live up to. A more attainable first goal can be the elimination of single-use disposable products from the classroom: cups, napkins, food containers, etc. Much of what we find in the garbage is only designed to be used one time and discarded.
A garbage stream without any of these materials immediately looks very different, and children who become aware of this start thinking differently about the world around them. From there, imagination is the only limit to practice! Tomorrow’s adults who value conservation as an innate good begin by modeling care and stewardship in our classrooms today.
- The Environmental Protection Agency offers educational tools related to sustainability and waste reduction. Many of these drill down into specific issues related not only to student life within schools but school administration as well.
- Waste Management offers educational resources focused primarily on recycling.
- National Geographic introduces the idea of the circular economy.
- Twinkl’s blog posts on sustainability, waste reduction, and zero waste classrooms offer an interesting range of specific tactics that schools and teachers can take to reduce waste.
Montessori, M. (2009). The Absorbent Mind. BN Publishing, p. 52.
About the Author
Marc Jensen, PhD (he/him), is a Montessori teacher at Westminster School in Oklahoma City, OK. He is a composer, improviser, and author, and teaches music history as adjunct faculty at Indiana University East. He is AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.