How To Teach Kids About Recycling

October 3, 2016 Student Life82

For a child, learning about recycling can be a complex and confusing lesson. Recycling different types of material is common throughout the United States, but understanding the difference between what is trash and what is recyclable can take some time. When teaching your child how to recycle, it’s important to make it a part of your daily lives.

Garbage vs. Recycle

The first thing children need to understand is the difference between what goes in the garbage and what should be placed in a recycling bin. Show them how food and non-recyclable material should be made into compost or thrown away, while recyclable materials are placed in the appropriate recycling bins.

Talk to them about the types of material we recycle, like paper, plastic, glass, and metal. Go into detail about these materials, covering the RIC system for plastics and the different types of metal that can be recycled. Many products are difficult to classify in clear cut segmentations, but going over these classification systems can help your child identify and organize recyclable materials.


Sometimes  the best way to learn is by doing. Set up a recycling station where your child can practice what you are preaching. Create easily accessible, child-friendly bins for paper, plastic, glass, and metal, along with a compost bin and traditional trash can. You can also add an area for new, unsorted items and then ask your child to organize them into the appropriate bins.

It’s important to consult local regulations as different areas have different rules when it comes to recycling. Some locations require materials to be completely separated, while others allow you to put all recycled material in the same containers.

As an extra motivation for recycling, many states have a deposit-refund system in place that promises a small refund upon a container’s return to an appropriate redemption center. Turn a week of recycling into an activity and reward by taking your child to return your bottles and cans. Make recycling a positive experience for your child by giving them the small amount of money you get in return as a reward.


To provide a more robust understanding of the recycling process, continue the lesson outside of the house. Take your children shopping with you and have them identify recyclable materials based on what you have already taught them. Encourage them to read labels and decide for themselves what can and cannot be recycled.

Give children additional hands-on experience by taking them to your local recycling center. There they can see where all the material they have sorted will ultimately end up, and how it is processed and recycled.

You can also teach them what happens to each material; how glass can be broken down and melted into new bottles and jars and how plastic can be reformed into bottles, bags, car parts, furniture, building materials, and even clothing. Paper and cardboard fibers can be separated before being remade into new paper. Metals like steel and aluminum can be shredded and  reconstituted into cans, pipes, train tracks, and frames for cars, airplanes, and bicycles. By putting the process in context, it becomes easier to reinforce the concept of recycling.